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For T-Bone Burnett, the Play's the Thing

In the mid-'90s, after producing big hits for artists such as Los Lobos, Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett was ready to hang it all up.

"I just said, you know, I'm going to quit," Burnett says. "I was sick of the record business. Everything you made had to fit through a very narrow slot ... and it was so restrictive that I wasn't interested in it anymore. I felt that I kept getting given the same jacket to alter, or something like that."

That's when Sam Shepard called to say he was putting on a new version of his play Tooth of Crime, and asked Burnett to write the music.

"So I said yes immediately," Burnett says. "It was exactly the thing that was in my history ... It was in a new direction, and it was in a direction of complete freedom, like, 'What is this play going to be? What is the music of this play going to be?' It doesn't have to fit anything; it doesn't matter. It could be anything."

Pop Culture Problems

Tooth of Crime tells the story of an aging rock star who gets challenged to a kind of musical duel-to-the-death by an up-and-comer who wants to take his place. Below the surface, however, the play tackles a wide range of issues, like the isolation and corrupting influence of fame, and the narrow labeling of styles and marketing distortions of pop culture.

It felt personally relevant to Burnett in the '90s, but he says the play is even more relevant to society today. That was a message he now felt motivated to convey.

"The press had completely abdicated its role as the guardian of the democracy," Burnett says. "It had turned into the media and was doing nothing except creating celebrity."

Burnett has also been on a crusade against digital music recording and what it has done to "two-dimensionalize" sound. But at the same time, he says he loves the democratization of music made possible by digital files sent over the Internet.

"Let's see where the artists come out with this freedom," he says. "Let's see what happens. I think ... the artists are going to save us. That's my hope. I feel like all the leverage has swung to the artists ... because none of this huge machine they've built works without what they call content."

Reluctant Artistry

Burnett has, for his entire career, been fighting to broaden people's ideas of what can be considered popular music. He's been surprisingly successful, helping to produce hits out of obscure roots music like the bluegrass of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the new rockabilly of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand.

But Burnett himself has always been a somewhat reluctant artist.

"I like it better when I'm not singing," he says. "I like it better working with Robert [Plant] and Alison [Krauss] and listening to them sing. I love that."

Burnett's adaptability is part of what makes him a good producer, but it makes him a little nondescript as a frontman. His voice has some of the same high, reedy quality as that of Roy Orbison, who was also a native of Fort Worth, Texas. In fact, during a songwriting lesson he gave there just before his death, Orbison collaborated with Burnett on a melody that later became a song called "Kill Zone" on Tooth of Crime.

"I didn't want to do anything with it," Burnett says. "It was this melody I was holding and I loved and wanted to take care of. But I didn't want to really do anything with it until this play came along. And the feeling of the melody fit the world and ... the atmosphere of the play.

Sam Shepard's play is an uncompromising work, and Burnett's music for it functions as a throwback to a time when art didn't compose itself around what might be salable. Having been conceived as part of a play, some of Burnett's twisted blues numbers stand alone better than others.

But Burnett says he's unconcerned. At the age of 60, with the successes he's achieved as a producer, he's entered a place of freedom to do whatever he wants. And he intends to take advantage.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christian Bordal
Christian Bordal is a Norwegian-American (via Australia) musician, radio producer, and freelance music journalist who contributes regularly to Day to Day. He's very good at making faces and making a fool of himself, and he once impressed his NPR editors with a drunken recitation of the gibberish poem "Jabberwocky." He briefly considered launching a career performing at children's parties, but he finds his own children to be trouble enough. In addition to this list of remarkable professional accomplishments, he is a producer at member station KCRW in Los Angeles.