T Bone Burnett, A Life in Pursuit by Lloyd Sachs
Some of the most prized albums in my collection have the name T Bone Burnett attached to them. These include the marvelous duo recording Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, the remarkably personal No Better Than This by John Mellencamp, Low Country Blues by the late Gregg Allman and the outstanding soundtrack to the Coen Brothers picture, Oh Brother Where Art Thou. So I was keen to learn more about the man and his earthy approach as producer, on these great records. Lloyd Sachs’s book called, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (U of Texas) tells that story and reveals much more about this versatile artist. His short but concise biography released last year, tells the story of Burnett with a critical eye on his output as a producer, but also his life in music. The “pursuit” as Sachs puts it, is a little vague but it drives Burnett’s special approach to music creation. Says Burnett, who’s quoted extensively throughout the book, “All Art comes out of community and when communities can get together and not fight over who gets what piece and instead can say ‘this is ours, let’s make it great’ it just ends up being better…so to get to the spirit of a piece of art right, everyone has to be generous.” So it goes for Burnett who over the past 50 years has been a part of a music community since he was kid growing up in Texas.
Burnett was born in St. Louis, MO in 1948. His father worked for the Tandy Corporation and moved to Fort Worth, TX when Joseph Henry Burnett III, was four. According to Sachs, Burnett acquired the nickname “T-Bone” but can’t recall how and removed the hyphen when he became an adult. This may have been a way of avoiding a biographical portrait. Nevertheless Sachs explains in his introduction, that after he first met Burnett in 2008 as an editor at No Depression magazine, Burnett wasn’t interested in reflecting on his life in a book because he didn’t want to “look backward”. Burnett trusted Sachs, but felt better about not participating in the telling of his own story, beyond the sharing of some personal photographs contained in the book. Once the University of Texas in its American Composer Series commissioned him, Sachs went ahead with a full-length biography with Burnett’s endorsement. Sachs reports that the word “career” is the one that most offends his subject. He says that “pursuit” best describes Burnett’s journey through music, quite possibly with no end in sight, a very Zen-like quality that Burnett carries with him on every project. Writes Sachs “for all his successes, for all his clout, he is still finding his way, still stopping and starting over in pursuit of a higher truth in art and life.”
Sachs takes a chronological approach to telling Burnett’s story and it works best for his subject, a man who’s constantly on the go, often literally, from city to city and to different recording sessions. His critical point of view stands out as good as Burnett’s musical history. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s extensive knowledge matched by Burnett’s extraordinary knowledge of American music, so as an economical tome Sachs’s biography was a great book to read for its deep research and critical POV. The book was based on an extended essay for No Depression magazine going back to 2008, but at no time did I feel cheated by the brevity of the chapters. Sachs uses language in a good reporter’s fashion: the economy of copy doesn’t have to suffer with a poor vocabulary and blasé descriptions. Sachs namedrops all along the way having interviewed so many songwriters, musicians and engineers associated with Burnett’s body of work which goes further to enriching the text and reinforcing the strength of Burnett’s contribution to American music. His albums are of a kind: often bottom heavy and swampy but not for their own sake but because of Burnett’s keen sense of music history and his passion for Blues, Country and mountain music. As Sachs concludes Burnett isn’t interested in staying in one place, musically speaking, he’s about re-inventing old sounds, “he draws greater personal rewards from elevating gifted young artists and seeding the future with singers and songwriters who will carry our great music tradition forward than he does from massaging his own reputation.”
T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit is recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about the “man behind the curtain” of so many great records these past 20 years. Burnett’s solo records are given consideration by the author as well. Unfortunately Sachs doesn’t include a complete discography of Burnett’s output offering up a handful of “selections” and a few words about some of the musicians Burnett hires to create his “sound”. Considering the extensive source material for the book listed in the bibliography, I was disappointed Sachs didn’t go the extra mile and offer readers a detailed list of Burnett’s remarkable body of work in one section. A complete discography would have been a useful addition to this concise biography. (This review first appeared on Critics At Large on October 25, 2017.)