New T Bone Burnett Music Ponders Tech’s Impact

Musician and producer stands quietly on the shoulders of history

“I’ve always been a man without a country. I’ve always been a citizen of heaven.”

That’s the opening salvo of “A Man Without A Country,” one of several fascinating, soul-searching pieces on a new album from music industry legend T Bone Burnett, due April 13 on Verve Forecast. Titled The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space, the seven-track, 44-minute suite is the first part of a trilogy featuring fellow composer/musician/producer Keefus Ciancia and heralded drummer Jay Bellerose, both longtime Burnett associates.

Burnett, who’ll also be Wednesday’s Music Keynote Speaker at SXSW, will be speaking not so much about The Invisible Light itself, but rather “about the things that the record’s speaking about,” he said by phone last month. “Perhaps I can put the record in context for people.”

And just what are those things the record speaks about? It’s complicated, but deeply intriguing. PR material issued in advance of the release includes this attempted summation: “At the heart of this trilogy is technology and how it has advanced significantly throughout the course of the last century, with radio, film, television and the internet serving as central parts of our lives.”

 
T Bone Burnett. Photo by J Cheuse

T Bone Burnett. Photo by J Cheuse

 

That makes Burnett an ideal keynote for SXSW, which in the 21st century has been all about the intersection of art and technology. Things were different when Burnett made his only other appearance at SXSW way back in 1992, playing a Columbia Records show in conjunction with his album The Criminal Under My Own Hat at Auditorium Shores with Willie Nelson and others.

Back then, SXSW was only music, and Burnett was in the midst of becoming better known as a producer than a recording artist. A St. Louis native who grew up in Fort Worth and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Burnett ended up in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue before making three records as the Alpha Band with David Mansfield and Steven Soles.

He released a half-dozen albums under his own name in the ’80s, but he also produced records for Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Willie Dixon, Roy Orbison, and many others. By the ’90s, he had become a midas-touch producer at the helm of career-making records by Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, and others. All of these turned out to be just a warm-up for O Brother, Where Art Thou, the 2000 Coen Brothers film soundtrack that sold eight million records and helped earn Burnett the first of two Producer of the Year Grammys.

O Brother also put Burnett in heavy demand for film work over the next decade. He won a Grammy for his work on the 2005 Johnny Cash and June Carter biopic Walk the Line and an Oscar for co-writing “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s Crazy Heart with Ryan Bingham. Television came next: He helped spur the success of his wife Callie Khouri’s primetime drama Nashville, acting as executive music producer and composer for its 2012 debut season.

More recently, he’s worked with Bellerose and Ciancia on music for HBO’s True Detective, a collaboration that set the table for The Invisible Light. “Certainly some of it grew out of the kind of atmospherics that we started exploring in True Detective,” Burnett says.

“I’m thrilled to be living at this time and viewing, witnessing all of this …”

 
 

Burnett has covered a lot of sonic ground across a lifetime of making records, but The Invisible Light is a fresh adventure, cross-breeding elements of industrial noise, world music, folk roots, and more into a darkly futuristic tone. That’s very much by design, he says, as the music needed to fit the themes addressed in the lyrics.

“The dystopia we live in now is so much worse than the worst dystopias of my youth,” Burnett says. “Orwell feared that the truth would be hidden from us, and Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. And they were both right. And now we’ve mechanized this sea of irrelevance, and automated it.”

If the concept sounds heavy, the music is a revelation, and Burnett sounds fully energized. “I’m thrilled to be living at this time and viewing, witnessing all of this,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll be a good reporter for the historical record.”

Lyrically, the impetus for The Invisible Light arose from an unlikely source. Burnett was commissioned to write a musical involving Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, a process that drew him back into songwriting.

With two more installments of a trilogy ahead, Burnett is devoting less time to producing other artists these days. “During the time I was writing, I realized it was time for me to dance or get off the floor,” he says. “I’ve taken solace behind other artists for most of my life; I never wanted to step out front in the first place. But, at this point, I feel confident saying I’ve paid my dues. I feel I’ve got enough to stand on to go ahead and get out there myself.”

T Bone Burnett was a Music Keynote Speaker on Wednesday, March 13.

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