T Bone Burnett: How I’m planning the last phase of my musical career

10:20 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 Community
T Bone Burnett (Photo by Lester Cohen)

T Bone Burnett just turned 70 years old in January, and as one does if one is lucky enough to reach a milestone like that, he’s started reflecting on his life and career.

“I haven’t looked back … but I’m beginning to,” he says. Which is not to say he’s stopped looking forward.

“I’m in a more of a gathering strength place. I wanna learn as much as I can as I go into the last phase of my work,” says the prolific Grammy and Oscar-winning producer, who will present the culmination of that career — so far — on Thursday at the Festival of the Arts Boca.

Burnett is the man behind the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Cold Mountain,” “Walk The Line” and “Crazy Heart” soundtracks and the music for the first season of “Nashville,” the ABC/TNN series created by wife Callie Khouri. He’s also collaborated with everyone from Roy Orbison to Bob Dylan to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

So, he’s got a lot to draw upon.

“It’s always thrilling. That’s the wonderful thing about recording music,” says Burnett. “The wonderful thing is that you go in and there’s nothing, and you come out with something. There’s a piece of something that’s been created and it’s always an exciting phenomenon.”

Burnett’s appearance at the festival is essentially “a DJ show,” with himself and his guitar, narrating film clips and telling stories. In culling those pieces, he says he realizes how important collaboration has been in his career, as “I’ve found myself in one situation after another one that I realized were all collaborative ventures, from the Rolling Thunder Revue to Roy Orbison’s ‘Black and White’ show to ‘O Brother,’” he says. “I realize I was trained very early on by Bob (Dylan) and (songwriter) Jacques Levy to be able to tell a story through different artists, through different mediums, how to pace it and keep it cohesive through different voices.”

You might think that so accomplished a producer would be most comfortable calling the shots, but Burnett says he’s found joy, over time, in the complete opposite.

“When I started out, when I was a kid, I tried to control everything, tried to write arrangements that had every note delineated,” he says. “Now I rely on all of these extraordinary musicians who know so much more about their instruments than I do … I don’t like anything I can control. I’m fascinated by things I can’t control … I think that generosity is the hallmark of an artist. I believe we learn generosity along the way. I’m gonna work on that from now on.”

One of the things Burnett is committed to doing, as he said, is to never stop learning, even if it’s scary. Recently, that’s meant scoring “Happy Trails,” a Broadway musical based on the life and career of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, even though he’d never done such a thing.

He admits reading about Broadway legends Frank Loesser, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and realizing that “every song was a great song. I was like ‘Great. Now I have to write 20 great songs.’ I don’t know if I’ve written 20 great songs in my life. To do that on a Loesser level was frightening. I would wake up and start writing. And once I started I couldn’t stop, and now I’ve written about 50 new songs.”

Burnett’s reverence of musicians and songwriters goes back to his youth, and it’s set the tone for a career that’s been a celebration of the music created in America, which he believes “is our greatest accomplishment as a people. I believe we’ve invented of couple of precious musical languages, that we’ve invented blues, jazz, rock n’ roll and hip-hop. All four of those things are really our best evidence of the creed of invention and creative freedom we have in this country. They’re evidence of the goodness of this country … Our music is a mongrel, so so speak. Everyone knows that mongrels are better dogs than purebreds. They’re a more hearty dog.”

His awe of the greatness of some of the legends who created those sounds gave him pause.

“When I was a kid … I would listen to Muddy Waters. I was an 18-year-old white kid from Fort Worth, Texas, and Muddy Waters was a grown man and ferocious. I knew I couldn’t do what he did. I couldn’t get close to it. (It was the same) with Ray Charles, and how far I was from that stopped me a lot of times. It’s still true that those guys are eternally gifted, blessed artists and I could never do what they did. But I can do something wonderful, nevertheless. The stuff I’m working on can be as powerful and beautiful and loving as I can (make it.) I find a lot more freedom in that than I did when I was younger.”

One of his latest projects is “Deep City,” an upcoming TV drama created by “From Dusk Till Dawn“’s Juan Carlos Coto and Khouri. Set in Miami’s creatively alive Midtown area, it’s another look at the combination of elements that have made a specific segment of American’ music so vital.

“There are so many different cultures that have mixed in Miami, which is truly an international city. It’s an axis of race and immigration and globalism and tribalism,” he says. “Where those things intersect is Miami. We’re going to tell about the tensions of those very strong forces through that town in modern life. I’m only a part of the team on that — before it, I had spent very little time in Miami. But I went down a couple of years ago and it’s an incredibly fascinating city. The bulk of the story we are telling happens in Midtown, where the arts are burgeoning.”

Whatever he’s doing, Burnett says, the genesis will always be the thing that will be onstage in Boca Raton — a guy and a guitar, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

“I’ve never really wanted to do anything besides play music,” he says. “The rest of it has been figuring out a why, when and where to do that.”