T Bone Burnett
Published Feb 05, 2010When Hollywood wants to do something country-themed, it almost inevitably turns to T Bone Burnett to get the music right. The Oscar-nominated and multiple Grammy Award-winning producer has scored such films as Walk The Line, Cold Mountain, and several by the Coen Brothers, including O Brother Where Art Thou? That's on top of his long list of other credits, such as Elvis Costello's King Of America, Gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator), and Robert Plant & Allison Krauss's Raising Sand. Burnett's latest project is Crazy Heart, the soundtrack to a film about an aging country singer, played by Jeff Bridges, and directed by Scott Cooper. The film has perhaps the most personal significance for Burnett of any he's worked on, not only because of its storyline, but because many old friends were involved. Not the least of these was singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton, who played a crucial role in composing the film's original music and helping to shape Bridges' character, Bad Blake, before succumbing to cancer at the film's completion. Exclaim! caught up with the always-busy Burnett in Los Angeles.
Where did your involvement in Crazy Heart begin?
It began for me when I answered my door and there was a guy named Scott Cooper standing there. He'd sent me the script and it was a pretty good, I thought. I mean, I'm a musician, and I understand that reading a script is an art unto itself. It's not like reading Huckleberry Finn or something. So Scott showed up, and he's a very convincing and interesting guy, with a lot of history.
You also took on the role of co-producer for the film. Does that speak to your personal connection to the story?
That, and my friendship with Bridges. [Scott] had convinced himself that he needed Jeff and me to do this film. He hadn't really signed anybody up yet when he came to see me. Robert Duvall was his partner, and that of course gave Scott credibility. So the first thing he asked me to do was call Jeff. That's definitely a producer's function and I was more than happy to do it. After Jeff read the script, he told me he'd been holding back on committing to do it until he had an idea of what the music was going to be like. He said, "Are you going to do it?" And I said, "I'll do it if you do it." So, we just finally said to each other, "Well, alright, let's do it then!" I think we both agreed more out of a desire to do something with old friends. I don't think either of us thought we'd actually have to go through with it. But then soon after he said yes, Maggie Gyllenhaal came on board and Colin Farrell got wind of it, and Ryan Bingham came on board. All of these things just started collapsing into this vortex of Crazy Heart.
Were you the go-between then when it came to Jeff and Colin crafting their roles?
The other thing I did as a producer was call my friend Stephen Bruton out. We had grown up together in Fort Worth, Texas, and I knew that Stephen knew more about this life on the road than anybody I knew. I've been in the studio my whole life; I've only gone on the road three times really, once in the '70s [with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue], once in the '80s [with Elvis Costello], and once a year or two ago [with Robert Plant & Allison Krauss]. I'm not a road animal. I'm completely interested in sound, how it can be manipulated and what it can turn into. So I called Stephen up to ask if he would do the original music for the film. He said yes, and we became partners. He was on the set with Jeff every day, he was the go-between, he was the most active producer of the music, he was a full partner in the songwriting. I would say he was the most in control of the music side of the film.
Did you have complete confidence in Jeff and Colin as singers?
Colin I didn't know, but he raised his hand so I figured he must be able to sing. I was completely surprised at how well he did and what a good country singer he made. Jeff on the other hand, the two of us have been playing guitar and writing songs together since about 1970, so I was well acquainted with what he was capable of doing.
On top of that, Robert Duvall's participation is reminding people of how great he was in Tender Mercies.
Yes, there's an obvious connection there. And for me, to work with Robert was an incredible thrill. I've lived with Robert Duvall in the arts my whole life, going back to the first time I saw him in To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a real charge to do this project with him.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan Bingham is someone still relatively new on the scene. Were you aware of his music?
Ryan's name started getting mentioned to me a couple of years ago. The Coens were down in West Texas shooting No Country For Old Men and Joel called me up and said, 'Have you heard about this guy Ryan Bingham?' They were thinking of casting him in something, but I hadn't heard of him. Then for the next six months after that I probably heard of him once a week. I'd get CDs in the mail or hear him on the radio or see something in the newspaper, or someone would bring his name up. So by the time Scott Cooper showed up and said, "What do you think about casting Ryan Bingham?" I just said "Yes. Get him here immediately, I've got to find out who this guy is."
It's obviously tempting to hope that this soundtrack will cause a lot of people to rediscover great artists like Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, much like the O Brother soundtrack did for old time music.
Well, I'm sure somebody will. There'll be some kid who's probably 12 right now who will see this movie and hear the Buck Owens song, or the Delmore Brothers' song, and start chasing them down. Then in ten or 15 years he'll write a song that will change his life or change other people's lives. You don't know where these things will lead, you just do them and move on. It's a little bit like being Johnny Appleseed, planting a harvest that you're never going to see. I don't think about it that much; the whole thing with O Brother Where Art Thou came as a complete and utter shock, except for this ― I knew we had ten incredible singers in this film that hadn't been heard by people, or had barely been heard by people. I knew that with George Clooney in the line-up there would be a light shone on them that none had ever experienced before, and that there was a good chance that people would hear something they had been missing, even though it had been right under their noses.
I'm not sure if "compulsion" is the right word to describe your feelings toward keeping this music in the public consciousness, but do you feel that's part of what drives you?
Yes, I do. And it probably is a compulsion. There's so many beautiful musicians and writers and painters, creative people in general, and what most of us get is squeezed through this tiny bottleneck of American Idol and things like that. I think it's incumbent upon us who care about old time music and other kinds of music and art that isn't in the mainstream to spread the word however we can. Movies have become a great radio station; people are in the dark with a good sound system for two hours, and I see that as a great opportunity to DJ.
I think the most interesting aspect of Jeff's performance is that his character almost seems like an American archetype now. Can you see that at all?
Yeah, I do see it a little bit. In a way, it's a modern day cowboy ― the solitary life, the outsider. I've felt very much that way my whole life, even though I haven't been on the road touring. I've still felt alone my whole life, so I can certainly identify with that character. I think that yes, what Jeff created is a uniquely American figure.