T Bone Burnett Continues to Resonate

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There are legends and elders in music, and then there’s T Bone Burnett. He’s produced more than his share of historic projects over the last six decades. This year, he put that care into an album of his own. Reporter Justin Barney went to Burnett’s house to find out how the Nashville Artist of the Month keeps finding new life in old things.

“I’ve been looking for these guitars my whole life,” says T Bone Burnett. He’s strumming a guitar next to a gorgeous Art Deco desk and a BAFTA Award in his warm and lived-in Nashville home.

“When I was 14,” he goes on, “I was working in a guitar store called THK Music in Fort Worth. My friend, Stephen Bruton, was working there too. He was 14. Also, he found this Epiphone Texan. It was, like, a ’63 or ’64. And then I saw Paul McCartney playing it on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.'” 

“I’ve been looking for one ever since.”

He finally found one some 60 years later at a guitar store in Brooklyn.

Musically, he likes the sound of the guitar’s resonance.  And it inspired the songs for his new album, The Other Side.

“Resonance” is a consistent theme for T Bone Burnett. Like recognizing what’s special about the resonance of a vintage guitar, he has a knack for hearing how performers, sounds and songs that have been around for a while can resonate anew. And he’s made way for others to hear it too.

“It started really with Roy Orbison,” Burnett explains. “He’d been sort of retired in Nashville for quite some time, and he wanted to re-enter the culture. I participated in this [Orbison concert film] called “Black and White Night.” Springsteen was in it. Tom Waits was in it. Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt.”

“As I understand it, it’s the most viewed concert in history, because PBS has been playing it for 30 years.”

That way of hearing what has the potential to resonate on and on is what has made T Bone a great producer, and it’s something that has been widely recognized. He’s won 22 Grammys, including one for Record of the Year in 2009

But hearing the resonance in someone else can be easier than hearing it in yourself.

Burnett says that to make his own albums, he had to develop his own tone. Which was hard for a musician who holds tight to the things that he loves. 

“It took me forever,” he testifies. “It took me until now to get past those early influences.” 

On this new album, it’s evident that Burnett’s gotten past a lot of things. That’s even reflected in the title The Other Side. It marks a tonal change for him, one that fellow performers noticed in Joni Mitchell’s living room. 

“He came to a Joni Jam,” says Jess Wolf, one-half of the band Lucius and a collaborator on The Other Side. And he took his turn offering a song.

“It was just him and us and maybe Blake Mills was chiming in on some pedal steel or something. And, of course, Joni was on her throne. It was kind of a magical moment.”

A month later Burnett called Lucius to record with him: “To us he said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve written happy songs written about joy and, and loved writing about it.'”

That’s the turn that Burnett has made in this record.

In his basement, after an hour of talking about seemingly every era of popular music and theory, he asks, “Did you ever see Tender Mercies? It’s a beautiful Horton Foote movie. Robert Duval plays a country and western singer. At one point he says, ‘You know, I don’t trust happiness. Never have, never will.’ And I never did either. I thought if you would allow yourself to be happy, you were just setting yourself up for some kind of crushing disappointment.” 

“But now, I’m 76. The biggest disappointment would be not being happy.”