Art and politics

T Bone Burnett stakes his claim
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  May 31, 2006


MUSIC TOO: “The idea was for the drums to not play any beats, but to just rumble.”

The canny Texas-born songwriter T Bone Burnett hasn’t stepped into the footlights for — at least metaphorically — 14 years now. And, literally, it’s been 20 years since he’s taken the stage to perform his songs, which he’ll do once again on June 2 at the Somerville Theatre.

Not that the guitarist and singer — whose career blossomed during his membership in Bob Dylan’s 1970 “Rolling Thunder Review” and through his own Alpha Band and eight solo recordings — hasn’t been working at a furious pace.

But after his last solo album, 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat (Columbia), Burnett lost touch with his muse. His road to self-rediscovery as a performer was full of fascinating twists. He’s produced distinctive sounding albums for Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, his then-wife Sam Phillips, nuevo-retro country artist Gillian Welch, mountain music icon Ralph Stanley, Los Lobos, and Counting Crows. He made the multi-platinum Bringing Down the Horse with the Wallflowers and the Grammy winning A Wonderful World with Tony Bennett and k.d. lang. He also won a Grammy for his music production and direction for 2001’s O Brother, Where At Thou?, which yielded a soundtrack that gave bluegrass-rooted music the biggest boost it had had since the 1960s folk boom.

What really liberated Burnett again, however, was making music for the theater — especially the plays of Sam Shepard, which rumble along to their own distinctive poetic rhythms. “That really pulled me outside of myself and got me writing for other characters,” Burnett says. “It taught me that it’s all about storytelling, including the music, and the rest is secondary.”

Even after that enlightenment it took Burnett years to get back into the studio with his own songs. And then the process was still unhurried. He holed up with a crack band that included guitarist Marc Ribot and drum legend Jim Keltner, and they experimented and jammed and listened to Howlin’ Wolf and other pioneers of earth-shaking primal rock for inspiration until Burnett’s new lyrics and the music found their steam.

The result, The True False Identity (Columbia), is a riveting, visceral shamble through the heart of modern America that — save for his distinctive, airy high baritone voice — sounds unlike any of Burnett’s previous albums. It’s complex and free-ranging, yet has the humming, noisy, welcoming feel of garage rock at its heart.

At the same time the two-disc Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (Columbia/Legacy), which mines his earlier work, has also been released. But during our recent telephone conversation we talked mostly about The True False Identity and what it says about its creator and the times.

TED DROZDOWSKI: It seems, listening to the lyrics of The True False Identity, that you've lost faith in our culture.
T BONE BURNETT: I wouldn’t say I’ve lost faith, but we’ve reached an important moment in our culture. Let’s start with the cultural revolution that began at the end of World War II and lasted about 30 years. This revolution has been maligned as a kind of ’60s hippie phenomenon, but the truth is our world is much better off for having gone through it. In the middle of the ’70s, the positivism of that revolution changed and a movement coalesced around the idea of Armageddon or something.

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