Just how and why you are familiar with T Bone Burnett, that tall, gangly Texan with a guitar, very likely depends on your age, your musical tastes, and even your movie-going habits.
Is he the guy who served as a guitarist with Bob Dylan’s touring band, the Rolling Thunder Revue, in the mid 1970s? Or is he the musician who subsequently struck out with friends to form The Alpha Band, and by 1980 issued his first solo album?
Or is he the masterful producer who brought out the best in such artists as Elvis Costello, Jackson Brown and Diana Krall, as well as his first wife, Sam Phillips, and such bands as Los Lobos, the BoDeans and The Wallflowers, and the unlikely duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (who collaborated on the 2007 duet album, “Raising Sand”)?
BOOK RELEASE FOR ‘T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT’ When: Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Where: The Hideout, 1354 W Wabansia Tickets: $10 Info: www.hideoutchicago.com
Is Burnett the uniquely inspired source behind the soundtracks for such films as “Walk the Line,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Inside Lllewyn Davis,” and, most importantly of all, his scoring of the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” whose brilliant use of a catalogue of “roots-based” songs won him a Grammy Award and is widely credited with introducing a vast new audience to what is now referred to as “Americana”?
Or, is he the rebel artist who has made it his mission to champion analog sound and fight for musicians’ rights in an age of technology in which Internet monopolies too often reap the profits that artists rarely see?
As it turns out, Burnett, now 68, is all of these things, and more. A complex character, to be sure. And in a new book, “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” (University of Texas Press, $26.95), Lloyd Sachs — the nationally known, Chicago-based writer on popular culture, who was a music critic and award-winning editorial writer at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984-2008 — captures the complexities of the man over the many decades of his career. (A book release event is set for Oct. 10 at The Hideout, where Sachs will be joined by performers Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson and Nora O’Connor, who will perform some of the songs written, recorded and/or produced by Burnett.)
As Sachs notes in his book: “[T Bone’s] success is particularly amazing because, in many ways, he is an outsider playing an insider’s game. A fierce intellectual, he finds cultural enrichment in a paradise of anti-intellectualism. A man of deep religious faith, he thrives in a den of moneylenders. Burnett is part Don Quixote, charging at digital windmills in his quest to restore analog truth, and part Southern politician, crossing palms with hyperbolic play money: He says that Justin Timberlake is ‘the closest we have to Bing Crosby,’ claims the mandolinist Chris Thile [Garrison Keillor’s replacement on “A Prairie Home Companion”] is ‘the Louis Armstrong of his time,’ and calls Alison Krauss ‘the one’…[just as] Ray Charles was ‘the one’.”
Although Burnett chose not to participate in Sachs’ chronicle of his music-making, he made it clear he had no problem with his interviewing dozens of people (including Sam Phillips) who have worked with him (or lived with him), so the resulting book is something of a multi-perspective, Rashomon-like appraisal. And as a journalist, Sachs had interviewed him over the years, had lunch with him a couple times, and hung out with him after a few shows.
“In those interviews it was easy to feel a real connection,” said Sachs. “T Bone is a larger-than-life character, but also a warm and funny man. With the book, I wanted to delve more fully into the many dimensions of his artistry, and write about the impact of ‘O Brother,’ which really upended the notion of what pop music could be.”
“A lot of people know who Burnett is, and how the words ‘visionary’ and ‘legendary’ are so often used to describe him. But they have no idea what a great singer-songwriter he was, even if he was self-conscious and insecure about himself as a performer. For example, his self-named acoustic album on the Dot label, released in 1986, contains some of his best work — the closest thing he did to a country album, with great playing and a mix of heartbreaking songs and hymnal-like meditations. And I believe he is writing songs again, and there will probably be a new album at some point.”
As for the “Americana” tag now so often appended to Burnett’s name, Sachs believes the word, which has become kind of an umbrella for country, R&B, folk and blues, is in many ways antithetical to Burnett’s idea that no such lines should be drawn.
“He is someone who believes all music exists on a continuum that includes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ album, and the albums of Merle Haggard. He has studied composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, and he thinks the score for the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’ was brilliant in the way it advances the story.”
As for Sachs’ next story: “It might be a book about baseball, and how we follow sports.”