T Bone Burnett on Quitting Wife Callie Khouri's 'Nashville': It Was a 'Drag-Out Fight'
"Are we getting scary sounds?" Burnett half-jokingly asks his engineer as vintage Moog and Mellotron keyboards are plugged into the console in his converted living room. Today, Burnett's task is to score all eight hours of HBO's True Detective, a thriller-noir starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson that is set to premiere in January. He's going outside his rootsy wheelhouse with an electronic score that's more Trent Reznor than Ralph Stanley. Being ominous is "the most fun!" he nearly chortles, exercising an unexpected Vincent Price side. "I've tried to put smoke and darkness in everything, but to have license to really go dark is great."
Coming of age in Fort Worth, Texas, during the '60s as a nut for The Beatles, rockabilly and Cole Porter, young Joseph Henry Burnett III -- "T Bone" is a childhood nickname, the origins of which he says are not dramatic or important -- fell in with a group of budding painters dubbed Los Creativos. He'd put music to their experimental films. At around 16, Burnett was introduced to the recording studio and "heard music a whole new way," he says. "I fell in love with recorded music. I've never been comfortable live. The part of me that wanted to be the songwriter was the part that wanted to be known. I'm possessed, and I still have to write, but the recording side is more altruistic."
Burnett was drawn to film work by the overwhelming "sense of the movies not getting it right." He explains: "I wanted to fix every movie that had music in it. You watch Rita Hayworth in Gilda. … She's supposed to be playing guitar, but it's pantomime. They wouldn't have a baseball player throwing a grapefruit, right? But the movies didn't care about music."
Once in the film fold, he barely let up, whether it involved curating original soundtracks for Cold Mountain and The Hunger Games or guiding Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon through Walk the Line. But it was the bluegrass revivalism of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that won Burnett his first album of the year Grammy and made musical history. (The soundtrack album has sold 7.8 million copies and easily netted Burnett, its producer, a cool $5 million.) "Even Justin Timberlake tells me it was an important record to that generation," says Burnett. "That was like a depth charge that plunged into the ocean and the bubbles are floating to the top in the form of all these new songs. A lot of groups on top 40, like Mumford & Sons, refer back to that film."
Indeed, Marcus Mumford cameos in the Coens' Llewyn Davis, which harks to another seminal moment in acoustic music, the "great folk scare" of the late '50s and early '60s. Burnett again found himself doing months of training with an actor, this time Oscar Isaac, who arrived with terrific vocal chops. "I had to get him to stop singing. He was way too good. I worked with him on the storytelling side of singing." Although the character loosely is inspired by Dylan contemporary Dave Van Ronk, "there was no prototype," adds Burnett. "We spent six months creating a history for him." And post-history, embedding a bit of "Sweet Jane" into the soundtrack's "The Death of Queen Jane," to hint that Llewyn Davis ended up influencing Lou Reed.
Burnett has a half-dozen things lined up after True Detective. He's starting a label, Electromagnetic Recordings, in conjunction with Capitol Music Group, and signed his first act, L.A. band Mini Mansions, with a Jerry Lee Lewis project to follow. Old pal Dylan bestowed upon him a sheaf of papers with incomplete lyrics from the Basement Tapes days; Burnett plans to gather disciples to finish writing the songs. "There's some really interesting young artists who love that period and could reinvent them for now," he says. He also is set to score Last Train to Memphis, the long-gestating Elvis Presley biopic co-produced by Mick Jagger.
Elton John is itching to work with him again. He might have to wait in line. "I'm 66, I've made a lot of records, and it's nice to find someone who inspires you again," says John. "I don't think he was even acquainted so much with my pop history, even though he saw me in 1970 at the Troubadour. But he suggested going back to the piano, bass and drums that I made my name with live. I thank him for that because I'd have never thought of doing it in a million years."
When John performed at USC in September, the audience awarded the night's first standing ovation to the man who introduced him, Burnett -- an odd accolade for someone whose only public visibility these days is picking up the occasional Grammy or Oscar. But even to much of the collegiate crowd, the producer's name is a mark of quality -- or, in 21st century parlance, a brand. "I hope they know I'm trying to fight for the artist," says Burnett. "In this undifferentiated YouTube universe, we need somebody to say, 'This is good,' right? We need trusted people that can point to things for us. So I've tried to do that: be a trustworthy curator."