T-Bone Burnett: The Producer
Last year, I wrote an homage to Joe Henry’s work as a record producer, and there could hardly have been a more apropos time: On the heels of fine work with Allen Toussaint and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, mere weeks before the release of his own stunning Blood from Stars, and with terrific albums by the likes of Loudon Wainwright and Mary Gauthier under his belt, Henry’s stock as a producer couldn’t have been much higher.
A year later, Henry’s still doing pretty well– his recent work with Mose Allison just might be deserving of an addition to last year’s list– but it’s a bit more difficult to appreciate the work of his mentor, T-Bone Burnett. Part of it is simply oversaturation; recent weeks have seen new, T-Bone-produced music by Jakob Dylan and Willie Nelson, with Robert Randolph’s turn next week and albums by John Mellencamp and several others in the works. (Thank God for Grace Potter, who had the cajones to scrap her T-Bone sessions and go with a different producer, better-suited to her own vision.) And part of it, I think, is that, ever since he rose to fame as Americana curator and analog fetishist extraordinaire with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Burnett’s work has mostly been of a piece; he’s just got one speed these days, and at times it seems like he’s less interested in cultivating an artist’s individual gifts than in creating his own, ever-deepening trademark.
But give the man a break: For as predictable as his sound may have grown, he’s got a back catalog that’s littered with visceral, exciting records; moreover, he’s got at least one upcoming project that really breaks out of his rut, so the future of T-Bone Burnett is hardly a dark one. Thus, I present a tribute to the man, the myth, the producer– my top ten albums produced by T-Bone Burnett.
10. Jakob Dylan
Women and Country (2010)
As easy as it is to criticize T-Bone for his burgeoning obsession with dusty Americana soundscapes, it’s equally difficult to think of anyone who does it better. His work with Jakob Dylan is a far cry from his the muscular rock of the Burnett-helmed Wallflowers album Bringing Down the Horse; it has more in common with Raising Sand, perfecting that album’s sound with warm, atmospheric environments that put a cinematic flair on the spirit of the Old West and of American music lore. It’s the perfectly evocative space for Dylan’s impressionistic, meditative songwriting, and proof that Burnett at his best is still in tune with the needs of the artist he’s working with.
09. Joe Henry
Clearly, Joe Henry learned from a true master. Burnett, his friend and mentor, produced this set with an understated warmth and elegance that refuses to acknowledge genre boundaries; these are folk songs produced with elements of jazz and blues. Sound familiar? It’s because it forms the basis of Henry’s own production aesthetic– and because his own voice as an artist was emerging here, and Burnett was on hand to cultivate it.
08. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
Raising Sand (2007)
For some critics, this Grammy winner was where the trouble really started for T-Bone– the album where it became clear that he was only interested in going at one speed anymore, the point where his sound officially grew predictable and stagnant. I’m not unsympathetic to that view, but the fact remains, I think, that this is one of the finest, loveliest manifestations of the T-Bone sound– warmth, rounded edges, and a muted palette that summons folk and folk in equal measure, all coming together into a noir-ish take on Americana. It’s a sleepy sound, yes– but also one that’s easy to get lost in.
07. Elvis Costello
King of America (1986)
This wasn’t Costello’s first country album, but it may be his best, and much of the credit goes to Burnett, who made the album sound lived-in and loose; where some of Costello’s albums can feel like genre affectations, this one simply feels natural, and the songs are given plenty of room to breathe. This is also a product of a T-Bone whose sound didn’t yet have all the grit smoothed out, meaning that there’s a crispness and just the right dosage of rock and roll energy to make things feel lively and spontaneous.
06. Roy Orbison
Mystery Girl (1989)
Talk about being sympathetic to the artist’s gifts: On this, the highest-charting album of Orbison’s career, Burnett created a sterling, elegant sound that played up the singer’s operatic pop strengths without drifting into parody, or ignoring his roots in rockabilly and early rock and roll. The fact that he also enlisted the likes of Bono and Elvis Costello to contribute songs is just icing on the cake.
05. O Brother Where Art Thou?
Original soundtrack (2000)
The album that made him famous remains an album that perfectly showcases T-Bone’s gifts. Before he became a reenactor of vintage Americana, he was a curator of vintage Americana; here he assembled some of the finest songs from the back pages of blues, country, bluegrass, and folk, and transformed them from historical relics into living, breathing testaments to this music’s enduring vibrancy and integrity. Most everything here is a modern day recording, not an archival selection, and if T-Bone records them in a way that sounds timeless and traditional, he maintains the grit and rough edges of the performances to ensure that nothing here feels fussy or academic.
04. B.B. King
One Kind Favor (2008)
Here’s a superb– and vastly underappreciated– example of how well Burnett’s approach works when he remembers to let the music speak for itself. All of the hallmarks of his work are present here, from the classicist song selection to the approximation of vintage American sounds, in particular Chicago jump blues. But for all its noir-ish trappings, it never feels affected, because at its heart there is simply a terrific band, and Burnett allows their swinging, strutting chemistry to shine, unaltered and unadorned– making this one of the most lively, vibrant records he’s ever been involved with.
03. Sam Phillips
Fan Dance (2001)/ A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
This knock-out one-two combo, which Burnett made with then-wife Phillips, represents to his canon what Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me does to Joe Henry’s: These are the albums that prove him to be a master of minimalism, as he dials down the pyrotechnics and allows the natural mystery and magic of the small combo of musicians to shine. I love the all-acoustic smoke and mirrors of Fan Dance, but I’d probably give a slight edge to A Boot and a Shoe, largely for the space Burnett gives to Jay Bellerose’s quirky, punchy percussion, which almost single-handedly gives the album its character.
02. Robert Randolph and the Family Band
We Walk This Road (2010)
Any concerns about Burnett being stuck in a rut are laid to rest with this smokin’ hot set. Here T-Bone combines all his greatest gifts– his talents as a curator of classic Americana (here expanded to include not only vintage gospel and blues, but also Dylan and Prince), his hands-off approach to simply letting the musicians shimmer and stir up their own wicked magic, and– best of all– a thumping, throbbing energy that makes this an electrifying alternative to some of his other recent, sleepier recordings.
01. Sam Phillips
Martinis and Bikinis (1994)
Completely unlike anything else in his catalog, this manic, magical pop production may not represent all the trademarks of T-Bone’s sound, but it does represent him at the height of his creative ambition and his sense of adventure. The album is often pinned with the “Beatlesesque” label, but Burnett turns that tag on its side while simultaneously owning it completely: It’s a rush of inspired studiocraft and sonic wizardry that’s enchanting in its own right, but always in service of the songs, making it, for my money, T-Bone’s finest hour at the controls.