Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b John Henry Burnett, 14 January 1948, St Louis MO) Singer-songwriter, guitarist, producer. He moved to Texas as a boy, grew up listening to R&B and C&W on radio, and later busied himself in the Texas record scene, producing albums e.g. by Delbert McClinton. He joined Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review tour '75, appearing on the subsequent '76 LP Hard Rain and film Renaldo And Clara. The Alpha Band was formed '77 with Steve Soles and David Mansfield from the Dylan tour for LPs Alpha Band, Spark In The Dark and Statue Makers Of Hollywood '77-8. Burnett appeared in the film Heaven's Gate '80; mini-LP Trap Door made a stir with laconic lyrics and dry delivery on 'A Ridiculous Man', 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend'. Truth Decay '80 was his solo debut, followed by Proof Through The Night '83, with Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend, quirky songs touched on Marilyn Monroe ('Fatally Beautiful'), '80s USA ('Hefner And Disney'). He toured with Thompson, then in '84 with Elvis Costello: they appeared onstage together as the Coward Brothers, released single 'The People's Limousine' '85. Burnett produced albums by Los Lobos: And A Time To Dance '83, How Will The Wolf Survive '84; his own further mini-LP Behind The Trap Door '84 included 'Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her', co-written with U2's Bono; then T-Bone Burnett '86 (the hyphen comes and goes) was an overdue solo album on MCA produced by David Minor and including Billy Swan and David Hidalgo. Further Burnett albums were The Criminal Under My Own Hat on Columbia and The B-52 Band And The Fabulous Skylarks on One Way. He is a genuinely idiosyncratic artist, accusations of his faddism disproved by a small but impressive body of work. He produced Costello's King Of America, assisted the debuts of Peter Case and country rocker Steve Earle '86.

There had been more production work for Counting Crows, Roy Orbison and others, including several for his wife, singer Sam Phillips, and an album for Cassandra Wilson on Blue Note in 2006. By then Burnett was also in demand for film soundtracks. He oversaw the soundtrack for the Coen brothers movie The Big Lebowski '98, a film that has become a massive cult, especially among musicians. Then the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? eventually sold eight million copies in the USA and copped four Grammys in 2002, including Album of the Year, as well as spinning off a live concert tour, a CD of which also won a Grammy. A record label, DMZ Records, was co-founded with Joel and Ethan Coen. More soundtrack work included Cold Mountain and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. He also tutored Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for their lead roles in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, an assignment he took on because he didn't want anybody else to do it. His TV credits included music for 'True Detective' and 'Nashville'.

Finally he was trying to avoid production work; he said he was writing songs about the time he's living in now, and that they were all comedies. In May 2006 his first album in 14 years, The True False Identity, was released on DMZ/Columbia, and DMZ/Columbia/Legacy put out a double-CD 30-year retrospective called Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett. In 2010 he won an Oscar for the song 'The Weary Kind' in Crazy Heart, for which he also won a Golden Globe. But the Coen brothers wouldn't leave him alone; Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013, set in the New York City folk scene of the early 1960s, looked like being another triumph for everyone concerned. The only genre he hadn't conquered was Broadway (though he'd worked with playwright Sam Shepard in the 1990s), and in 2015 he was hired to write Happy Trails, a musical about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.