A Conversation with T Bone Burnett. April 23. Saturday Night. Sundance Kabuki. Presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.
I arrived early. I’ve worked at the Festival, so I know what they mean with the warning on the back of the tickets. “Ticket holders must arrive 15 minutes prior to show time to be guaranteed a seat.” “Get your seat,” I’d been advised earlier.
On the way in I spotted staff waiting for the man to arrive. There were some staff people in the audience, a sure sign that this should be a special event. Jeannette Etheridge, the owner of The Tosca Cafe in North Beach was in a group of VIPS in reserved seats.
T Bone Burnett had just won an Oscar for Best Original Song, “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart.” He also had to be celebrating Jeff Bridges’ Best Actor Oscar.
They played some T Bone Burnett tunes while we waited, among them “Zombie Land” and “Fear Country.” I’d been lucky to catch Burnett play at The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It wasn’t expected that he would play tonight.
We’re in the big theater. This is the same room where I saw Rock shows before The Kabuki was converted to a movie theater. I saw Iggy in this room. There were great Tubes New Year’s Eve shows here. The configuration is much the same, but it’s a movie theater now. It’s redecorated and certainly more sedate. There are large Japanese fans on the wall. It’s the biggest theater in Sundance Kabuki and is used for the bigger events.
Deputy Director Steven Jenkins gave a short introduction. There was a short description of Burnett’s musical accomplishments. A complete listing of the records and the artists he’s produced and appeared with would be too long to repeat. “We’d be here all night.” “Take a good look at your favorite CDs.” There’s a good chance T Bone Burnett was involved. Burnett worked on the Coen brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” movie soundtrack. The hit movie gave “Roots” Americana music a big boost.
Jenkins thanks some people and sponsors. He also thanks his brother Larry. Larry is in Burnett's management team and helped talk him into appearing tonight. Elvis Mitchell will act as MC. He’s a film critic from Detroit. He hosts a public radio show, The Treatment.
Burnett and Elvis Mitchell come onstage to big applause. “Oscar winner T Bone Burnett!” Elvis is a Black man with dreads in a ponytail. Burnett is in a suit coat and dress shirt. I really didn’t notice until later, but he wasn’t wearing sun glasses. There would be no Roy Orbison look tonight. There are two chairs and a small table onstage.
Elvis starts by saying that Burnett is one of the few people who was directed by Bob Dylan. Burnett says that playing in the Rolling Thunder Revue with Dylan was “his first gig.” The tour was filmed and released as “Renaldo and Clara.” “Did anyone see ‘Renaldo and Clara’?” A show of hands reveals that over half of this audience has seen it. Burnett is surprised. “I told you these were your people,” Elvis tells him.
So, what was it like being directed by Bob Dylan? Burnett talks about Dylan’s directing style. Everything was improvised. Dylan would choose a few actors and a location. “You’re going to have a scene with her.” There were no lines, and that’s all the direction they got. It was like the tour. “We were winging everything.”
Burnett says the tour was great. Every night was different. The music performances were better than the film. “Joni Mitchell would come out and sing a song by herself. Then she’d play one with Dylan.” “Then someone like Rambling Jack Elliot” would join them onstage. The combinations of musicians and songs changed every night.
Burnett said he never saw “Renaldo and Clara.” “Oh wait!” He was at a meeting with Japanese investors who were shown an eight hour version. They were puzzled and didn’t invest.
Burnett says that despite his sometimes gruff manner, Dylan was great to work with. “Directors can be stubborn. Isn’t that right, Jeannette?” The owner of The Tosca Cafe in North Beach gets a mention from onstage. I’ve heard that Burnett stops in there when he’s in town.
Elvis says the sound track for The Big Lebowski is underrated. How did it get started? “We were very stoned,” Burnett says. The director, Joel Coen, had great musical taste. “We started with Beefheart and went from there.”
The room goes dark for some clips on the big screen. The first clip is from “O Brother Where Art Thou?” It’s the scene where they’re recording “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Burnett says we’re too used to hearing those old songs with scratches in the sound. “We wanted the music to sound new. It can’t sound old and scratchy. It’s always now in movies.” He says George Clooney can sing, but in the end they had it dubbed. There’s a clip from “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.”
What were the films that influenced him to make music for movies? “Gilda” and “American Graffiti,” especially “American Graffiti.” “It changed the way music was used in movies.”
Burnett talks about editing. It’s hard to explain. You work on it and work on it, and suddenly it’s there. He compares it to being a sculptor. He cut fifteen minutes from “Crazy Heart” and then realized it was done. “It was just there.”
They go back to “The Big Lebowski” soundtrack. “We wanted to get that guy who did the strange instrumentals in the Fifties. Who was that guy?” Someone from the crowd suggests Martin Denny. Yeah, that guy! Elvis says, “Yes, it’s a very knowledgeable audience.”
They talk about “Stone Mountain.” The director was Anthony Mighela. Burnett: “You can’t understand this country unless you understand The Civll War.” Elvis: “So, you were interpreting it for him?” Right! Burnett talks about Civil War songs. Most of them were bloody. “Both sides would go back to their campfires and sing. ‘We killed a thousand of them today. Just wish it was more.’” It was real righteous God is on our side stuff.
“The Folk process takes place over years.” “The guy we call Homer was the result of three hundred years of different singers and storytellers in Greece.” “I want to be a story teller.”
Elvis asks Burnett about the “Gothic ethos of the South.” Some of his music is Gothic, “Like the South.” Yes, Burnett is from there. He grew up in North Texas. Texas is a little Gothic. New Orleans is very Gothic. Burnett says it’s a good place to be from.
We see some more clips on the big screen. In the “Walk the Line” clip Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a Rock and Roll number. The young audience starts rocking. Everyone starts to realize that Cash will be a big star. After the clip, Burnett comments that Johnny Cash had a unique way of holding the guitar. Phoenix had a hard time duplicating it.
Another clip from the movie is Reese Witherspoon singing “Wildwood Flower.” “Wildwood Flower is the song everyone learns guitar on,” Burnett says. The song is familiar to many and Witherspoon had a hard time doing the song. At one point she left the studio. “I heard doors banging shut.” She went outside and screamed. Burnett went out and told her to just sing the song as if she was with a baby and singing a lullaby and no one else was there. It worked and Witherspoon nailed it. Burnett’s comment, “You can conquer worlds with enthusiasm,” draws applause.
Johnny Cash was intense. Burnett tells a story about a fellow band member who had borrowed an expensive Martin guitar from “Brian.” Cash saw it and asked, “Is that Brian’s guitar?” Yeah, he was told. Cash pulled out a key and put a big scratch on it. This left the band member in a spot. How could he return it now? He didn’t confront Cash.
We see a clip from “Lady Killers” and there’s another clip from “Crazy Heart.” It’s the scene where Colin Farrell sneaks onstage behind Bridges’ character, Bad Blake, to make a surprise cameo appearance. The crowd erupts when they see the Country and Western heartthrob. Bad thinks the adulation is aimed at him. When he sees the Colin character he figures out quickly that the excited applause and cheers were not meant for him. He looks a bit disappointed, but continues the song.
We’re shown a great version of “Strawberry Fields” from “Across the Universe.”
In a clip from “Cold Mountain,” a group of cowpokes are sitting around the campfire singing. It’s quiet and a bit ominous. One of them figures out that it could be his last night on earth. He’ll soon be dead. He starts singing anyway.
“The guitar was an anachronism. There just weren’t that many guitars in the Old West back then. They used banjoes and harmonicas.”
Jeff Bridges liked to work with first time directors. “He just likes it.” It has cost him in the past. “Jeff Bridges survived being in a Michael Cimino movie,” Elvis cracks. Bridges and the lead character from Crazy Heart “have much biographical in common.” They both went through frustrations and disappointments. “He couldn’t be Leonard Cohen. He couldn’t be Bob Dylan. He couldn’t be David Allan Coe.”
Every song has to have something to do with the story. The music can’t just be a diversion anymore. It has to have something to do with the story. Each song must move the story. Burnett compares the making of Crazy Heart to the story of Excalibur. “We just pulled the sword from the stone.”
The conversation keeps going back to influences. Was Elvis Presley a big influence on Burnett? No, Burnett says, “I missed Elvis... I was into Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Reed.” When he saw Elvis on “that TV show” “The “Comeback Special,” he was “Elvisized.”
What movies do you first remember the music from? What was your first movie music memory? Burnett says it was “Gilda.” He had been learning guitar and realized Rita Hayworth wasn’t close to forming any chords on her guitar. Burnett figured he could do better. Elvis Mitchell says the first movie music experience he can remember was “Cat Ballou.” In one scene they used a banjo that didn’t have any strings on it.
Burnett says that years ago people didn’t know as much about how music was made. “Now with MTV and Youtube, people know more about the mechanics of someone playing music.” In the past it was easier to fake it. Any lip synch that was even close was accepted. The actor’s musical motions didn’t have to make sense.
We see some more clips. They show the song mentioned from “Gilda.” Rita Hayworth sings and plays guitar. There’s a clip from “To Have and Have Not.” Hoagy Carmichael plays piano and Lauren Bacall joins him on “Am I Blue?” “There’s a lot going on in that scene.” Conspirators are lurking and “Bacall is trying to seduce Bogart.” “Hoagy wrote one of the greatest songs, 'Stardust.'" Elvis Mitchell says that Lauren Bacall’s voice was dubbed by Andy Williams in the movie.
We see a rare clip of Elvis Presley in “Loving You.” “This is one of the last looks at the ‘real’ Elvis. He still wore blue jeans!” Elvis is performing onstage in a small theater. Most of the crowd are teenyboppers, but there are some middle aged frumpy chaperones who show their disapproval. Elvis works his magic. Even the chaperones are won over and rocking by the song’s end. It is Elvis in his prime. The lights come back on. Elvis Mitchell says, “I’m a Black man named Elvis, but I’m not going to try that.”
The influences question comes up again. “I liked ‘One Eyed Jacks,’” Burnett says. “Marlon Brando was great in that.” “And ‘Giant... There was so much going on in that movie.”
Burnett says, “I’m not at my top game tonight.” He did sound a bit hoarse. Maybe he was a bit under the weather. “You’re doing great!” Mitchell assures him and the audience agrees.
It’s time for questions from the audience. “Would you collaborate with Ry Cooder? A lot of what you do sounds like Ry Cooder.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that!” Burnett says quickly. (Cooder has accused some, especially The Rolling Stones, of borrowing from his work.) Burnett praises Cooder, and says he’d love to work with him, but says it’s unlikely.
The next person doesn’t really have a question. He says he wants to give something to Burnett. A vinyl record is brought onstage. Does Burnett remember it? “I made this when I first got to L.A.” We couldn’t see the record. Burnett says he’ll autograph it. “It’s going on E-Bay,” Mitchell cracks.
What movie really inspired him to make music for movies? Burnett mentions “American Graffiti” again. Another film that influenced him was “The Last Picture Show.” “It was shot in North Texas, where I’m from... Before I escaped and joined the smart people in California.” Burnett talks about “the water tank scene.” In the scene three characters are hanging out on top of a water tank. The camera slowly pans across the desolate landscape. It’s in black and white. Ben Johnson says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” Burnett again says he’s glad he escaped Texas.
Burnett says you could always hear the drone of B-52s from the nearby air base. They were always circling the area. He “recently learned” that bombing sorties were flown from there during the Vietnam War. The planes would refuel somewhere over the Pacific, drop the bombs in Vietnam and then come back to Fort Worth.
Question: Why wasn’t Colin Farrell in the advertising for “Crazy Heart?”
If they used Farrell’s name in the advertising, it would be very similar to the clip we saw where Colin comes onstage behind “Bad.” The film makers were afraid that if Colin Farrell was mentioned in the advertising, it would have sent the wrong message. “It would have become a Colin Farrell movie. We didn’t want that to happen.”
Question: Can you tell us about the album you just made with Willie Nelson? “Fantastic! Willie is the best!” Burnett says they tried to bring Willie in to help promote the soundtrack for “Crazy Heart.” The studio executives said they couldn’t see how Willie Nelson could help sell Country and Western music. Everyone has a good laugh at that one. “Idiots!”
“Does anyone remember the song 'Glow Little Glowworm'" by Johnny Mercer?” Burnett asks. He says again that the Folk process takes place over time. “Bob Dylan is the Homer of our time!”
Question: Was he influenced by the “Bonny and Clyde” movie? “Yeah, I should have been there!” Burnett says. He wishes he had done it. He loves Peter Bogdanovich, “Especially that movie he made in North Texas, ‘Paper Moon.’” Maybe Burnett is a little under the weather, but he corrects his mistake. “Bonnie and Clyde” was made by Arthur Penn. “You can’t do chase scenes anymore,” Burnett says. “Bonny and Clyde” had the best combination of music and chase scenes. “It doesn’t make sense to try and do them better.”
Elvis Mitchell asks: How about “Deliverance?” Did Burnett like it? “You had to like Ronny Cox playing live.” Burnett didn’t like it. He feels the music was “co-opted” or “bastardized.” “I loved Ralph Stanley and Bill Munroe.” “The music was used.”
There’s a question from the back. It’s a young woman with a heavy French accent. “First of all, thanks for not wearing zee glasses. You look very elegant and dreamy.” Was her question going to be what hotel he’s staying at? “How did you get so beeg in Texas?” A few audience members laugh. Burnett rolls his eyes. “I spent a lot of time by myself in Texas.”
Question: What kind of musical education does he have? “Did you go to school for this?” Burnett says he has no formal musical education. “It was fifty years of listening.” He was lucky because his parents were big music fans and had a great collection of 78s including Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. “I remember listening to 'Begin the Beguine.’ That was one of my favorites. Does anybody remember that song, ‘Naughty Lady of Shady Lane?’”
Time is up. The conversation has covered a wide range of music and film history. The two get up to leave the stage to a standing ovation.