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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.”
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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!”
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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.
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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. “
“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.”
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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.
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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.”
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