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T Bone Burnett

In a musical career that dates back to the mid-'60s, T-Bone Burnett has earned the respect of his peers and a loyal cult following as an uncommonly thoughtful and frequently witty singer and songwriter with a singular take on the moral dilemmas of modern life. The updated rockabilly of 1980's Truth Decay and the expansive rock sounds of 1983's Proof Through the Night won him plenty of accolades as a songwriter, but he's enjoyed significantly greater success as a producer, helming projects for a diverse array of artists, from Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Gillian Welch to Los Lobos, Rhiannon Giddens, and Imelda May, giving them a sound that's warm and dynamic, and imaginative arrangements that are engaging while serving the song and the vision of each artist. He's won a number of Grammys and has a successful second career coordinating music for film and television, with his credits including 2000's O Brother Where Art Thou, 2012's The Hunger Games, and 2012's debut season of the TV series Nashville (created and produced by his wife, Callie Khouri). As his work in TV, in film, and as a producer took up more of his time, 2019's The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space and 2022's The Invisible Light: Spells were two entries in a proposed trilogy of impressionistic, electronic-based albums he insisted would be his last. However, a renewed interest in more organic songwriting forms changed his mind, and he released a solo effort, The Other Side, in 2024. 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. As a teenager, he was a member of a folk-rock band, the Loose Ends, who released a pair of singles in 1966 and 1967 that were picked up for national distribution by Bell Records, though they failed to chart. Instead of attending college, he opted to open his own Fort Worth recording studio (one of his clients was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), 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 with Bob Dylan. Three years later, Dylan invited Burnett to play guitar on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. After it 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 efforts, 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 producing, 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. It won wide acclaim from spiritual and secular critics alike, but it was to be Phillips' last overtly religious release; instead, she began performing under her nickname, Sam Phillips, 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. (Phillips and Burnett divorced in 2004, the year A Boot and a Shoe, her last project produced by Burnett, was released; he wed director, screenwriter, and producer Callie Khouri in 2006). Despite his success helming projects like Elvis Costello's masterful 1986 effort King of America and producing the star-studded 1987 Roy Orbison tribute A 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 The 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, and Gillian Welch's Revival. Burnett's public profile took a huge leap in 2001 when he served as composer and music producer for the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as well as producing the soundtrack album from the film, which became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, selling close to nine million copies and earning Burnett four Grammys. He partnered with the Coen Brothers to form DMZ Records in 2002, and the label released several soundtrack albums either produced or executive-produced by Burnett, including Cold Mountain, A Mighty Wind, Crossing Jordan, and The Lady Killers. Burnett finally released an album of new original material, The True False Identity, in 2006 on Sony, and that same year also released a 40-song retrospective set spanning Burnett's entire career, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T-Bone Burnett. He produced 2007's Raising Sand, a collaboration between bluegrass star Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant; the album became a major critical and commercial success, and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Burnett's next project of his own was Tooth of Crime, a set of songs written for a play by Sam Shepard; it was issued in 2008 on Nonesuch Records. Burnett remained an in-demand producer over the next few years, working with old friends (he helmed Costello's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane), up and coming artists (Grace Potter & the Nocturnals), and classic veterans (Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman), earning some of his greatest plaudits for The Union, a 2010 collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell, and his music supervision on the Academy Award-winning 2009 film Crazy Heart. Burnett also produced the soundtrack for the 2012 adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and collaborated with the Civil Wars for the soundtrack for the 2013 food documentary A Place at the Table. Over the next six years, Burnett was intensely busy with film and television work, assembling talent and music, and producing scores and soundtracks that included HBO's True Detective, Khouri's Nashville series, and working with the Coen Brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis and The Lady Killers. He also found time to produce a slew of records for artists who included Rhiannon Giddons, the Punch Brothers, John Mellencamp, the Corrs, Zucchero, and Sara Bareilles. Burnett gave the keynote address at SXSW in 2019 and unveiled his first studio solo album in a dozen years. 2019's The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space was played by a trio comprised of himself and longtime collaborators keyboardist/composer Keefus Ciancia and drummer/percussionist Jay Bellerose. Its six extended pieces were articulated by the trio's improvisational interplay, with Burnett's pointedly philosophical lyrics acting as the guide sheets for the proceedings. Burnett said it was to be the first installment in a series of three albums that would draw the curtain on his career as a songwriter. In 2021, Raise the Roof, the long-gestating follow-up to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's Raising Sand, was released, with Burnett once again in the producer's chair. The same year, he also produced We Are the Golden Ones, a four-song EP from celebrated jazz pianist and composer Jon Batiste. In 2022, Burnett introduced a new recording format, Ionic Originals, that he declared produced audio superior to compact discs, vinyl LPs, or digital formats. The recordings would be issued in one-of-a-kind discs, with a new recording of Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind" as the first release in the format. The disc was sold in an auction in London, fetching over $1.7 million. The Invisible Light: Spells, the second chapter in Burnett's farewell trilogy, was released by Verve in August 2022. After buying a new guitar, Burnett found himself having second thoughts about bowing out with the Invisible Light cycle, and he began writing songs again, many addressing the listener as "you." He took his new material into the studio, and 2024's The Other Side became his first solo effort since 2006's The True False Identity. The LP included guest appearances from the indie pop duo Lucius, celebrated singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash, and his former Alpha Band collaborator Steven Soles. Burnett celebrated the album with a rare concert "tour," consisting of three performances in Nashville.
© Jason Ankeny & Mark Deming /TiVo


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