Musician T Bone Burnett is trading his dystopian sensibilities for some warm-hearted acoustic music


NEW YORK (AP) — At an age when many contemporaries contemplate retirement, musician T Bone Burnett has made big changes in his life and art.

Burnett, most celebrated for his production acumen, uprooted from Los Angeles to move to Nashville and recorded a warm-hearted disc of his own songs for the first time in nearly two decades. Indie rockers Lucius and Rosanne Cash add their voices to the acoustic collection.

“I’m so grateful that this music has come to me out of nowhere and without even trying for it to happen,” Burnett, 76, says in an interview with The Associated Press. “You know, it feels like the most pure experience of making music I’ve ever had.”

His disc, “The Other Side,” comes out Friday, the same day as Taylor Swift’s new “Tortured Poets Department.” They will not be competing at the top of the charts.

“She’s a miraculous person, Taylor Swift,” Burnett says. “She’s an amazing force for good in the world. She’s like Springsteen. She makes a connection with the audience. That is a gift from God. And that’s not my gift.”


While Burnett first became known musically as a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue in the 1970s and has periodically recorded his own songs, he’s more often been a spectral, benevolent presence in a studio working with some of music’s most celebrated artists.

Burnett’s production of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and the “Raising Sands” collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are celebrated and responsible for many of 13 Grammy Awards.

His list of credits also include a solo Dylan years later, Counting Crows, Brandi Carlile, Elvis Costello, Sara Bareilles, Roy Orbison, Los Lobos and his ex-wife, Sam Phillips. Elton John once said Burnett restored his love of recording. Soundtrack music for “Cold Mountain,” “Crazy Hearts” and “Nashville” bear his imprint.

“He’s a masterful ringleader,” Krauss said in an interview. While some producers want to manipulate sounds, she says, Burnett is intent upon “getting the most honest, uncloudy performance of each musician and vocalist.”

While he liked the Beatles and other performers while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Burnett was also intrigued by behind-the-scenes maestros like Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. Working in private, mixing sounds into something special — not to mention being married to actress Angie Dickinson, in Bacharach’s case — “that’s the life to have,” Burnett says.

Knowing that a studio is where an artist is most naked, trying to coax creativity onto a blank tape, Burnett says his philosophy is that 90 percent of the job is offering support.

“Support and encouragement, patience and courage, is a lot of it,” he says. “A lot of it is just being willing to wait. And have faith that it’s going to get there when things aren’t going great.”

Sometimes the best advice can be something simple — like “sing louder.”

Although most associated with rootsy music, Burnett feels that his signature is not necessarily a style of music but a purity of sound and tone.

Given his mild-mannered nature and the loveliness of much of what he’s worked on, it’s odd to hear Burnett talk about how for many years his own music was inspired by dystopian visions that grew from a teenaged nightmare about thought control experiments. A recent collaborative project, “The Invisible Light,” is abrasive and hard to listen to.

As the title of his new album suggests, though, he has come out the other side.

“In a way, I killed T Bone Burnett,” he says. “I just did. I’d had enough of that. I’d had enough of the dystopia, and I don’t want to spread that any further. I didn’t want to even participate in it.”


Now in Nashville, a move precipitated by both the pandemic and business reasons for his wife, screenwriter Callie Khouri, he has considered a life where his main outlet is writing songs for other people to record. That was his thought when he began composing the new music — and he’d still like others to try those songs — but while recording he noted a cohesion that made for a good album.

He’d been doing some writing for a musical about Roy Rogers, and studying the work of Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser. That influenced his own writing on “The Other Side,” a love story that is tight and concise with simple rhyming structures.

Invited to hear Burnett’s new music, Krauss was blown away. She says she was struck by how the songs sounded both fresh and familiar at the same time.

“I love it,” she says. “I love the treatment of the songs. The songs themselves are so beautiful. I remember my heart pacing at wanting to sing the songs myself.

“It just made me appreciate him on a whole other level upon hearing it,” Krauss says. “It was just so stunning. The music reminded me of when I heard other music that changed my standards.”

Burnett hasn’t shut the door on production work. He is working on something new with Ringo Starr, but exploring his own writing with a freer perspective is appealing to him now. The best part of a creative life, he says, is that “you get to do it as long as you want to, as long as you can.”

“I trust life,” he says. “I trust happiness. In fact, it’s the only thing I do trust now so it’s a major shift in my whole life. I’m 76 now, so I want to use what time I have let, I want to spend it happily. Creating and creating love. Creating good vibes, if I may still use that word.”


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