Despite critical acclaim as a performer, the rootsy singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett earned his greatest renown as a producer, helming recording sessions for acts ranging from Roy Orbison and Elvis Costello to Counting Crows and Sam Phillips. Born Joseph Henry Burnett on January 14, 1948, in St. Louis, Missouri, he grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, soaking in the area's indigenous blend of blues, R&B, and Tex-Mex sounds. Instead of attending college, he opted to open his own Fort Worth recording studio, while also performing in a series of blues bands; in the early '70s he relocated to Los Angeles, producing sessions for Glen Clark and Delbert McClinton.
After recording his own 1972 debut, The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks, Burnett toured with Delaney & Bonnie before befriending Bob Neuwirth, a singer/songwriter known for his ties to Bob Dylan. Three years later, Dylan invited Burnett to play guitar on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. After the Revue concluded, he and fellow Rolling Thunder alumni Dave Mansfield and Steve Soles founded the Alpha Band, releasing their eponymous debut in 1977. Spark in the Dark followed later that year, and like its predecessor failed to find commercial favor; when 1978's Statue Makers of Hollywood met a similar fate, the Alpha Band split, and Burnett returned to his solo career.
He resurfaced in 1980 with the acclaimed Truth Decay, which, like all of his solo work, found its lyrical center in his spiritual concerns. A move to Warner Bros. followed for 1982's Trap Door EP, and 1983's full-length Proof Through the Night featured guests Pete Townshend, Ry Cooder, and Richard Thompson. Still, commercial success eluded him, and so he continued working as a producer, overseeing highly regarded records like Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive?, Marshall Crenshaw's Downtown, and the BoDeans' Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams.
After recording a self-titled 1986 solo effort, Burnett agreed to produce The Turning, an album for the successful Christian pop singer Leslie Phillips. The album won wide acclaim even from secular outposts, but it was to be Phillips' last overtly religious release; instead, she began performing under her nickname, Sam, and with Burnett's aid landed a deal with the Virgin label for 1987's acclaimed The Indescribable Wow. Prior to recording her 1991 LP, Cruel Inventions, Phillips and Burnett wed, and he remained in the producer's seat for her later efforts, including 1994's Martinis & Bikinis and 1996's Omnipop.
Despite his additional success manning albums like Elvis Costello's masterful 1986 effort King of America as well as producing the star-studded 1987 Roy Orbison tribute Black & White Night, Burnett continued his solo career; like earlier efforts, 1988's The Talking Animals won raves from the press but failed to find an audience outside of his devoted cult following. His output dwindled as his production work increased, and only in 1992 did he release a follow-up, the spartan Criminal Under My Own Hat. Instead, Burnett remained one of the most prolific and distinctive producers of his day, crafting successes like Costello's Spike, Counting Crows' August and Everything After, the Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse, Gillian Welch's Revival, and the sountrack album for the Coen Brothers' 2000 film O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Burnett's latest is Tooth of Crime
(2008), a prophetic play that Sam Shepard first wrote in 1972, and it takes place in a time very much like now, Burnett explains. It's a time when there are zones of fame that flare up and people can become incredibly famous in their own zone and nobody else can know it. And then the zone completely disappears, but the famous person doesn t realize it because you can t even find the zone anymore. That was the initial inspiration for the album. These songs came together like a broken mirror, and you get a bunch of shards and start putting them together and create a lot of different angles, he says. That's this group of songs, this process.
Working with what has become a solid musical team anchored by Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, John Zorn) and drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, etc.), Burnett crafted the sound of Tooth of Crime
into a unique aesthetic. It's an approach that has evolved over decades of distinctive work for Burnett, both as a recording artist in his own right and in guiding an elite roster of artists and movie music projects: The 2000 Grammy album of the year O Brother, Where Art Thou?
soundtrack; the Oscar-nominated The Scarlet Tide
for the film Cold Mountain
(for which he also produced the soundtrack); albums by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, Ralph Stanley, Tony Bennett and k.d. lang; and recent projects such as Raising Sand
, the re-imagining of the Beatles'
catalog in Across the Universe
, and the music for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line
, are just highlights of a resume that stands as one of the most productive, distinctive, and lauded production careers of modern music.