T Bone Burnett on Quitting Wife Callie Khouri's 'Nashville': It Was a 'Drag-Out Fight'
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If T Bone Burnett declines to work on your next movie, TV series or album, please understand: He may be acting on doctor's orders.
"I turn down anything that seems like the person doesn't care about me," says Burnett, eating pistachios under one of the abstract expressionist paintings that line every open wall of his expansive Brentwood home studio. "I've been doing this a long time, and five years ago my doctor said, 'You can only work with people who love you and whom you love.' And it's wild -- [director] Scott Cooper knocked on the door that afternoon about Crazy Heart," the 2009 country music drama starring Jeff Bridges that resulted in a best song Oscar for Burnett for co-writing "The Weary Kind." "I don't want to be in any impersonal business deals -- having to do with music, anyway. If we're doing a shopping center, that's another story."
At 65, Burnett won't need to bone up on retail construction anytime soon, seeing how he's a darling among a dizzying and exponentially increasing array of talent in Hollywood and beyond. He caught the attention of the rock intelligentsia as a touring guitarist in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue during the mid-'70s and with a string of acclaimed solo albums during the '80s. But since essentially retreating behind the mixing board for the past 25 years, he's taken on the mantle of "beloved producer" -- a phrase he has helped ensure no longer is the oxymoron it seemed in the Phil Spector era.
To some, he's a father figure. "He's so enigmatic. He's like 170-feet tall, for one thing," says Lisa Marie Presley, who enlisted the 6-foot-4 producer to helm 2012's Storm & Grace. "But he's the sweetest man ever. I adopted him, paternally." To a superstar like Elton John, who tapped Burnett for 2013's The Diving Board, John's best-reviewed album in decades, he's that rarest of finds: an equal. "I'd gotten disillusioned, but in the twilight of my career, here's someone whom I feel as excited about as when I first met Gus Dudgeon," says John, comparing Burnett to the legend who produced his first 11 landmark studio albums. "He's gotten my love of recording back. I thought I'd lost that."
But it's Burnett's partnership with Joel and Ethan Coen that led to his mutual lovefest with some of the cooler pockets of the film industry (and to his being the recipient of Billboard-THR's Maestro Award, set to be presented at Hollywood's W Hotel on Oct. 30). It was, swears Burnett, "the first and only time I cold-called somebody" when he dialed up the brothers after seeing Raising Arizona in 1987. "I remember the call very well," says Ethan. "He was basically saying that he found what we did in the movie very amusing, and did we want to get together just for the hell of it? We became friends, but we weren't even talking about working together. The Big Lebowski was, shit, how long? -- 10 years later!"
As Burnett tells it, he reached out partly because he recognized anarchically disciplined kindred spirits and partly because he saw the advent of CDs presaging digital piracy and the fall of the music business. "I knew even back then I had to diversify and find another line of work," he laughs.
If he really intended to troll for a gig, the Coens were slow to pick up the hint -- or perhaps they were too busy enjoying a fellow raconteur to put him to work. "Fun is high on our list, and geez, you can have a few laughs with T Bone," says Joel. "He's articulate about culture and also quite funny about it. That's part of what makes the dialogue so productive and easy." Their fourth collaboration, Inside Llewyn Davis, opens in December.
Not every Hollywood encounter has been so charmed. Burnett left ABC's Nashville after one season, in which his idealized version of what country music ought to sound like won plaudits from fans and critics. Officially, he already had overstayed his welcome because he'd promised the creator and executive producer -- Callie Khouri, his wife -- only a 13-episode commitment. But when asked to elaborate, it's clear this was one of his rare excursions into non-physician-approved collaborating.
The marital/professional overlap wasn't the problem. (He also had worked alongside his second wife, singer Sam Phillips, with whom he had the second of his two daughters; they divorced in 2004.) "I love working with Callie," explains Burnett. "I have no problem working with Callie. I have a problem when people don't treat Callie right. I like to see artists treated with tremendous respect, and I like the executives to say, 'How can I help you do what you do?' That's what I do."
And ABC didn't? "Some people were making a drama about real musicians' lives, and some were making a soap opera, so there was that confusion. It was a knockdown, bloody, drag-out fight, every episode. You remember that show The Prisoner? If I were to tell you the truth, you'd think I was insane. "