How T Bone Burnett Plays Hollywood

Getting his folk-musician friends together and making soundtracks, a once-quirky record producer has stirred up a roots-music revival.
Christopher Felver/Corbis

Not so long ago, T Bone Burnett was a musician akin to the Greenwich Village folksinger in the Coen brothers’ forthcoming movie, Inside Llewyn Davis—known to everybody on the scene and nobody outside it. He was a brilliantly quirky record producer and a Bob Dylan footnote—he sparked Dylan’s interest in Christianity—when the Coens tapped him as the “musical archivist” for The Big Lebowski in 1998. Over the next two years, he and they conceived O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which stirred up a roots-music revival that is still under way. Burnett now moves between producing records by individual artists (Gillian Welch, Robert Plant collaborating with Alison Krauss) and producing movie soundtracks: Cold Mountain, Crazy Heart, Walk the Line, and this year Inside Llewyn Davis, each rendered in evocative lo-fi sound. And the territory occupied by roots music, a k a Americana, now takes in everything from the London-bred Mumford & Sons to ABC’s country-music series, Nashville, whose first-season soundtrack Burnett fashioned for the show’s producer—his wife, Callie Khouri.

Coens plus Burnett plus folk music: it seems inevitable, and probably was. And yet this latest movie, and Burnett’s approach to it, points to a real change in the way a certain kind of music is made. More than anybody, Burnett has kept alive the informal, collective music-making that the folk movement was all about. He’s done it by taking the hootenanny to the movies—using Hollywood cash and clout to get people with old-school wooden instruments to make music together.

Joseph Henry Burnett was born in St. Louis in 1948 and started playing music in Fort Worth, Texas. He skipped college to run a recording studio, and he was playing at the Other End in Greenwich Village in 1975 when he met Dylan, who was prowling the Village with a purpose. Ten years after turning from folk music to rock and roll, Dylan was organizing a tour that would recapture the spirit of the old Village folk scene. He invited a couple dozen musicians—from Joan Baez to Scarlet Rivera, a violinist he’d spotted from a car—to join him.

The Rolling Thunder Revue—“a traveling electric hootenanny,” as the Dylan biographer Robert Shelton described it—toured into the next year. Cameras were rolling for a feature film (Renaldo & Clara), and Sam Shepard (along to write dialogue) kept a logbook. Dylan and Baez sang separately and together. Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, and The Band’s Robbie Robertson joined the proceedings. And most nights, T Bone Burnett sang a song while people in the audience wondered who he was.

Burnett went on to make a series of records with backup by his widening circle of friends. He produced albums by Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, and Elvis Costello, helping them to complicate their distinctive sounds with country, soul, and blues touches. Then, in 1987, he served as the musical director of a Cinemax special devoted to the singer Roy Orbison. Filmed in black-and-white, the program is mid-century American pop stylized into music that seems to come from a distant past and belong to everybody. Orbison and friends are all dressed in black and white on an Art Deco stage. Tom Waits plays the organ. A baby-faced Elvis Costello plays the harmonica. Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, and Jackson Browne sing backup vocals. To Orbison’s left, in a black jacket and bolo tie, is Bruce Springsteen, relishing his role as a sideman. Burnett is on camera for just a few moments, a tall man in a baggy suit. But he was in charge, and once the show was rerun a jillion times during public-TV pledge drives, he was A-list in Hollywood.

More than anybody, Burnett has kept alive the informal, collective music-making of the folk movement.

Movies have brought old music to new listeners ever since the American Graffiti soundtrack revived ’50s rock and roll in 1973. The Band’s farewell concert in 1976, with a Rolling Thunder–inspired group of friends, was filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz; drummer Levon Helm took a role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, a film of Loretta Lynn’s story, with a soundtrack full of country classics.

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