T Bone Burnett, Seeing Clearly

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

As ubiquitous as T Bone Burnett has seemed over the past five or six years, it's shocking to realize he hasn't released a solo album since 1992's "The Criminal Under My Own Hat" or toured since 1986.

There was, of course, another hat or two that Burnett was under: uber-producer for other artists and master of the soundtrack. In 2002, Burnett won four Grammys, including producer of the year, for the old-timey, multiplatinum "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and subsequently crafted outstanding roots-rich soundtracks for "Cold Mountain," "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "The Ladykillers" and last year's Johnny Cash-June Carter love story, "Walk the Line."

But between those last two films, Burnett began to feel a familiar fire in his soul, the one that had flamed out after the commercial disappointment of "The Criminal Under My Own Hat." That's when Burnett had slipped into the shadows of production, pretty much abandoning songwriting and retiring his considerable guitar chops outside of session work.

Now Burnett is back with a new studio album, "The True False Identity''; a 40-track career retrospective, "Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett"; and a tour.

It's T Bone Time!

Burnett, 58, says he will continue to work with other people -- as he is now on "Across the Universe," a Julie Taymor film about the turbulent '60s built around Beatles songs -- but for the first time in two decades, he will vigorously pursue going out and playing live, including Tuesday's seated concert at the 9:30 club.

"That sounds like the most fun and the most invigorating thing to do," Burnett says. "And it's why I got into doing [music] in the first place."

Perversely, it's also why he got out of it after 20 years of critical acclaim and commercial frustration colliding with creative uncertainty.

"There came a time when it just seemed like nothing was going anywhere -- the touring and the writing -- and I didn't know what I wanted to say," Burnett says. "I wasn't connecting, and I just wasn't as generous as I would have liked to have been musically. I had other strengths that I was grateful for, and it didn't make sense to keep doing it at that point, although I had incredible times playing all that music. What I'm able to connect with now is much less disjointed, although the music probably sounds way more disjointed."

Which is a good way to describe a career that dates to when Burnett was 17 and purchased a small recording studio in Fort Worth in his native Texas. His emergence began a decade later in 1975 in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, whose principal members formed the Alpha Band, recording a trio of albums featuring mostly Burnett songs. There would be six solo albums between 1972 and 1992, none of which found the level of commercial favor accorded to artists that Burnett produced, including Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, the BoDeans, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, the Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Tony Bennett's duets with k.d. lang.

Even as Burnett illuminated others' voices, his own seemed to disappear. What got him going again was writing music for a 1996 production of Sam Shepard's "The Tooth of the Crime." (As a cast album awaits release, one of its songs, "Kill Zone," is on "Twenty Twenty.") Another song from that time is on "The True False Identity": "There Would Be Hell to Pay," an elegant eight-bar blues fable inspired by Skip James's classic open E minor guitar tuning and reminiscent of the classic murder ballad "Stagger Lee."

"That's where things first rumbled," Burnett says, adding that "that song provoked about 30 more songs."

But no immediate recording. There would be another burst between "The Ladykillers" and "Walk the Line." Songs, Burnett insists, "wrote themselves. I didn't have to force anything. These songs that were looking for a place, and I finally understood what I was writing about. I heard a world of sound I wanted to live in."

A whole new world, as it turns out.

"This is definitely conjuring music," Burnett acknowledges.

Over the past two years, Burnett and engineer Mike Piersante have conducted what Burnett calls "extreme sonic experiments," first gathering a coterie of "all the best cats I've found over the years." The new album's darkly swirling, rhythmic stew derives from a trio of drummers -- Jay Bellerose, Carla Azar and the legendary Jim Keltner, who is making a rare journey outside the studio to be in Burnett's band. ("I'm so thrilled he wants to come out with me," Burnett says.)

"A rhythm of 16 beats a minute is way too simple at the end of the day, or even 32," Burnett says. On the new album, he says, "there's just every beat, all the time, and that's where the freedom is. We said from the very beginning, 'Let's not play any beats, let's just rumble, let's just all create a big thing that's too much to hear.' "

The music, Burnett adds, "was written with the idea of performance. I said to the guys, 'Let's imagine ourselves in a thousand-seat theater playing this boom and this rumble, and let's make it so we and all the people out there listening are like beads inside a maraca and let's just shake it like that!' "

Even the string instruments -- Dennis Crouch's upright bass and Burnett's and Marc Ribot's acoustic and electric guitars -- were treated as percussion instruments, and much of the recording does away with the high end. The result is an album thickly drenched in the ominous New Orleans/Haitian voodoo blues atmospherics that also permeate Cassandra Wilson's Burnett-produced album "Thunderbird."

The albums, featuring many of the same musicians, were recorded simultaneously. They also reflect an appreciation for, but not a slavishness to, American roots music -- blues, Cajun and especially what Burnett calls "the conjuring, otherworldly nature of gospel music" that he immersed himself in for "The Ladykillers" soundtrack. "In a way, that's what we do on this record, getting that otherworldly thing and have it be modern and real and in the day," he says.

Of course, "The True False Identity" is also chock-full of Burnett's familiar morality plays, social commentary and mordant humor. The album is divided into two six-song cycles, "Art of the State" and "Poems of the Evening," and features such startling tracks as the primal dub of "Zombieland" and the eerie, paranoid "Fear Country," an indictment of the Patriot Act with spooky echoes of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You."

"Blinded by the Darkness," one of several tracks whose lyrics are spoken rather than sung, asks who should judge between the laws of God and the laws of man, while the mesmerizing "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies" and "Every Time I Feel the Shift" question media manipulation and populist memory. Burnett chastises politicians for bending spiritual beliefs to suit personal agendas, and in the noirish martial stomp "Palestine, Texas," he warns that "when you come out of this self-delusion/you're gonna need a soul transfusion."

Such concerns are not new to Burnett, of course, but he says he hopes "The True False Identity" is his deepest album in terms of what's said as well as how it's said.

"What you want to do is land in that place that's neither hindsight nor foresight. You want to split that place where heaven meets the Earth. You want to be in that place, of course, benefiting from the other stuff. I hope all of that is part of everything I do and say. I hope I've been able to turn all that experience into something strong."

In the liner notes to "Twenty Twenty," Burnett writes, "This is the way I wanted to close the book on these songs from a dead man, and open the book on the new life I am beginning after forty years of wandering in the desert."

Not that he's disavowing anything, though he does revisit some of the older material from the '80s. "Some of the things are incredibly, surprisingly good, but I do want to be able to take a good hard look at myself and not flinch. There were things that I know a lot more about now, things that had gnawed at me for years, things that I'd let go out that I wish I had paid more attention to, that I could have done a whole lot better.

"Back then I used to make records and then go out on the road, and when you go out on the road you learn so much about how the song is speaking," Burnett says. "There were a couple of songs that I re-sang because I thought that I could sing them so much better -- I wish I had sung everything better. And I did some remixing where things got lost or covered up in production, where I couldn't hear the song or even what I meant at the time -- a little bit of clearing the brush here and there."

And clearing a path to the future.

T Bone Burnett With Jakob Dylan Appearing Tuesday at the 9:30 club The show: After a long absence, one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of the past 30 years returns to the spotlight with a riveting new sound.

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