At age 58 and with a name like a grizzled Delta bluesman, one would assume there is nothing left for T-Bone Burnett to learn. But the Texas-bred songwriter admits to being something of a late bloomer. Even after spending four decades successfully wearing several different hats — Bob Dylan sideman, bandleader, label head, Grammy winner and, most famously, heavyweight record producer — Burnett feels he is just beginning to figure himself out. Much of that self-discovery came within the last 14 years. During that time, Burnett worked with everybody from Gillian Welch to playwright Sam Shepard, helped Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon capture the voice and spirit of Johnny Cash and June Carter for their roles in Walk The Line, and helmed the production of the leftfield smash soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? — his biggest commercial achievement.
He did not, however, make any music of his own. Because, he says, he had essentially forgotten how.
The True False Identity, released last month, brings that hiatus to an end. It’s technically his eighth solo album, but considering how much Burnett — and the world — have changed since the last one, 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat, it might as well be his debut. Now in the middle of his first tour in almost 20 years, Burnett is pressing the reset button on his career.
Ventura County Reporter: Is it easy for you to just jump back on the road after 20 years?
T-Bone Burnett: In some ways yes and in other ways no. I probably never played enough to really learn how to do it. I’ve performed very sporadically. Jumping back into performing and being on the road is not difficult. But there’s another side of it, which is that I’ve realized how far I have to go. I’ve really lived my life backward. This is what I should’ve been doing when I was 20. Better late than never, I suppose.
Why did it take so long for you put another record out?
Because I’ve been so busy working on other things. It’s all been part of a restructuring about the way I think about life and music and everything, really. I’ve been in a master’s class for the last 10 years, working in the theater with Sam Shepard, in films with the Coen Brothers and in music with Ralph Stanley and Tony Bennett. Following the different areas that these artistic endeavors have led me into, all these worlds opened up other universes of sound and possibility.
How selective are you with the production jobs you’re willing to take on?
The main thing I look at is who the person is, and if he or she is someone who I love and who loves me. Creation is done through love, really. I used to think conflict was a necessary part of creation. But I’ve come to believe that’s just an adolescent romantic notion that I had when I was kid. Now I just think it’s done through love. So I guess that’s the criteria. I don’t believe in categories. I don’t believe in hip or unhip or any of that kind of stuff. Producing a record, one thing is being a teacher, helping people learn how to do it. You want to leave them in better shape than they were when you started in some way.
What’s more satisfying — recording your own work or helping other artists reach a level they may have not have achieved on their own?
Doing my own work is much more satisfying in that way. But there have been times where, like O Brother Where Art Thou?, I was both being a record producer and doing my own work at the same time. I wasn’t singing, but I was a member of the creative process. And I felt very connected to that. The more connected you feel to it, the more satisfying it is. A lot of times, people won’t let you in. Occasionally, people would hire me to produce their record and immediately turn me into the adversary — you know, “the Man.” A lot of that is maybe that notion that creation requires conflict. That was a position I never applied for: “the Man.” But O Brother Where Art Thou? I feel is very much one of my records, even though I didn’t sing on it and I didn’t have much to teach Ralph Stanley.
You’ve referred to the songs on the new album as “dark comedies.” What influenced you to write in that framework?
This whole album grew out of working in the theater with Sam Shepard. The reason I call it a comedic record is because comedy requires some kind of realization, some kind of repentance. Tragedy just requires death. This record isn’t a tragic record, even though the lyrics are dark.
Would you call this a political record?
I’m not very interested in politicians. I’m more interested in what Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain has to say than what any politician has to say. But politics are part of life and part of the times we’re living in. Some of the ways I’m talking about things reflect into politics, but I’m not a pundit. I’m more talking about where we live, who we are, who I am, who I feel like I am but probably am not.