Q&A: T Bone Burnett

(Photo by Dan Eldridge)

'Crazy Heart' is generating buzz again for the mercurial music man

T Bone Burnett never wanted to be a rock star. Soft-spoken and unassuming, he exudes a kind of monastic calm that stands in stark contrast to the excesses of the music business, which he's been a part of now for more than four decades. In that time, he has garnered acclaim as a solo recording artist, produced records by everyone from Elvis Costello to B.B. King, and helped launch a cultural phenomenon by producing the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the Coen brothers' 2000 release "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Now he's again generating plenty of buzz thanks to his work on "Crazy Heart," the country music drama that earned a Golden Globe nomination for its signature tune, "The Weary Kind." Burnett, who lost his close friend and fellow "Crazy Heart" collaborator Stephen Bruton shortly after completing the project, recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's Kevin Cassidy.

The Hollywood Reporter: Did you know right away that "Crazy Heart" was something you wanted to be involved in?

T Bone Burnett: No, I didn't, but (writer-director) Scott Cooper made me believe that he was going to write and direct this movie. I know how hard it is to direct a movie you write, especially as a first-time writer and as a first-time director, but he had Robert Duvall with him, which helped tremendously -- because you figure, if Duvall's involved it's gonna be good. It hinged really on who was going to play the part, because the main character (Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges) is in almost every scene. And for it to be real he'd have to be able to sing and he'd have to be able to play. The story was nothing revolutionary or anything, but there was the chance, if we stuck to the script, to do something good. It became clear that there was only one person who could do this, (and) if Jeff didn't do it, I didn't think I'd do it because who else could do this part? Jeffrey was just right, and he and I had a long, good relationship and we've played a lot of music together. I just knew that he and I together could do something good.

THR: At what point did you start writing the songs?

Burnett: That was the first thing that happened, really, when we started making the movie. Jeff found his character and the character's voice that way. We all got together at my place: (Songwriter) Ryan Bingham was here; Scott was here; John Goodwin, an old friend of Jeff's who's a great writer; and (songwriter) Stephen Bruton. We all just talked and played and threw songs back and forth. It took months.

THR: The songs play such a pivotal role in a movie like this that the whole thing kind of hinges on how good they are. Was that daunting?

Burnett: That was the thing about the final song, "The Weary Kind," which Ryan brought in. There's supposed to be this song that Bad Blake is writing in the second half of the movie and it's supposed to be this great song that he says is so good -- so if it's not the whole thing is phony and you're dead. We were very grateful when Ryan brought that song to us.

THR: Is it difficult to write songs within such a specific context, as opposed to simply writing about whatever you want?

Burnett: I actually find it freeing to write for a character, because you can add anything to the character that you want to. For instance, we added a lot of Leonard Cohen and Don Williams and other things that wouldn't be considered straight-down-the-middle for a country singer. We had Jeff singing in his natural voice, which has this beautiful tone, so you kind of get to decide who he is. With yourself you're kind of stuck with who you are. (Laughs.)

THR: So you really had input into shaping the character?

Burnett: Oh yeah. Jeff is an incredible collaborator. He drew a tremendous amount from Bruton -- things to do, things to say, how he held the guitar. It came pretty smoothly. We started with the first song. "Hold on You"; that was the first thing we wrote. We had a timeline for how old Bad was when he played guitar.

THR: You created a backstory for the character?

Burnett: Yes, because you're having to create events in the past because these songs are about events in the past. So you had to know what he was listening to in '68, '71. (We decided) he had something to do with the "outlaw country" movement; Scott always said to Jeff that he was like a Highwayman, but I always thought he was more singular, more off to himself, like Billy Joe Shaver, a great writer who's been in a lot of Duvall's movies.

THR: Have you known a lot of Bad Blakes during your time in the music business?

Burnett: There are an awful lot of people who succumb to the problematic nature of life on the road, where every moment is another decision about what you're going to do and you have no responsibility whatsoever -- you can do whatever you want in a town and then you're gone. Robert Johnson, one of the prototypes of Bad Blake, got poisoned. He slept with the wrong woman and ended up getting poisoned and dying.

THR: Is that a lifestyle you've wrestled with?

Burnett: A little bit, but not that much. I mean, it's a miracle I lived past my 20s (laughs), but other than that -- I never really went on the road. I went on the road with (Bob) Dylan in 1976 and that was my first tour; and Elvis (Costello) and I went on the road in the '80s. I don't like the dislocation of the road. There's something freeing about it when you're out there, but it feels unhealthy.

THR: Between all the various things you do -- composing, producing, music supervision -- do you consider yourself first and foremost a songwriter?

Burnett: I do, actually. I like to play guitar, even though I'm not a great guitar player -- or maybe I'm a great guitar player but I'm not a good guitar player.(Laughs.) I play guitar like drums; I go for the groove. That's the thing I like the most. It came really easy when I was 12.

THR: When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?

Burnett: Probably when the Beatles came out, '63, '64. I saw that and thought, "Whatever that is right there, that's the future." I was already playing music so it was a natural transition.

THR: Did you ever envision yourself in Hollywood?

Burnett: Yes. Not right then, but a couple years after that. I bought a studio when I was 17 in Fort Worth, Texas, and I decided I wanted to be Burt Bacharach.

THR: Burt Bacharach?

Burnett: I'm serious! I thought, "That guy has the best job in the world. He writes music for movies, he's surrounded by beautiful things and he's married to Angie Dickinson!" It just sounded like the way to go. He wrote such great songs, man -- "Walk on By," all that stuff he did with Dionne Warwick. He was writing for Marlene Dietrich, that's how he came up (and she) ties into Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. So you have this rich history, and that kind of music has always appealed to me. That was one of the first kinds of music I really loved. It really spoke to me.

THR: Why?

Burnett: It's dark and minor and whatever my disposition is. I don't know, it's just my taste. I love that spooky, otherworldly, exotic sound. I love the Hot Club stuff with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. If you read Dylan's book "Chronicles," he says he got the inspiration to write songs by going to "The Threepenny Opera" in New York. He saw "Pirate Jenny" performed and he came out of that and wrote "Ballad of the Thin Man." Maybe he wrote it later, but it was a version of "Pirate Jenny." It's all folk music.

THR: What is your definition of folk music?

Burnett: It grows out of people. Even if it's performed by experts, it's close in spirit to the time when music was made by everybody in the tribe or the community or the group. Everybody did it, no matter how good or bad they were. Then it turned into this thing where some people got better and some got worse.

THR: When did more roots-oriented music become important to you?

Burnett: When I was about 14. Stephen Bruton and I grew up together in his dad's record store in Fort Worth, listening to Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe and the Blue Sky Boys and all that stuff. That was like our library. What an incredible resource that was! And his dad had great taste: He was a jazz drummer and had all these beautiful records. That was back when a record store would have a character all its own depending on the proprietor. Mr. Bruton introduced us to these beautiful jazz records and all these wild old records that you couldn't find today.

THR: What are your interests outside of music?

Burnett: These days, the last several years, it's been all music, I have to say. And sound. I'm very interested in sound. I'm an environmentalist in the area of sound.
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