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Mystery man

Review: Lloyd Sachs, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press, 2016).

Lloyd Sachs has taken upon himself the dream job of writing the closest thing yet to a biography and critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett. Burnett, like his hero and longtime friend Bob Dylan, seems omnipresent in popular culture but guards his offstage life with such care that he remains largely a mystery. Several items comprise the key points of Burnett’s life, in that they appear in most feature stories about him:

  • He was born in St. Louis and spent his formative years in Fort Worth.
  • Dylan recruited him to be part of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76.
  • With two other Rolling Thunder veterans, David Mansfield and Steven Soles, Burnett formed the Alpha Band (1976-78).
  • Some writers claimed that Burnett played a role in Dylan’s becoming a Christian. Burnett disputes those accounts, and from this book it sounds as though Soles was more engaged with Dylan on spiritual matters.
  • Since the demise of the Alpha Band, Burnett has recorded solo work but mostly produced albums for other musicians.
  • Burnett married Leslie Phillips (his second wife) after producing her album The Turning. Phillips broke with the Contemporary Christian Music subculture, rechristened herself as Sam Phillips, and recorded several pop albums produced by Burnett.
  • Burnett became a millionaire through producing the music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and many other films.
  • Burnett and Phillips divorced in 2004. Since 2006 Burnett has been married to Callie Khouri, the screenwriter of Thelma & Louise and creator of the ABC TV series Nashville.

Sachs is a music critic who has written for the Chicago Sun-Times and No Depression magazine, so he focuses heavily on album reviews and the finer details of recording. If you’ve never heard of ProSoundWeb, Tape Op, or Smoke Music Archive, here’s your chance to swim in the music nerds’ end of the pool.

Sachs comes close to self-parody when he quotes repeatedly from a music-industry weblog, hybeblot, as its one-name contributors debate analog vs. digital recording. Burnett is a fierce critic of digital recording, streaming music, and rapacious tech companies. The younger readers of hypeblot respond to him as though he were a Luddite.

Burnett finally loses his patience:

[H]e wrote to the user EarOnDalton, “I hope the best for the future, but I do not have the kind of fervid belief in technology that causes the citizens of iTopia to behave in as close minded, threatened, and hostile a way as fundamentalists in any other religion.”

Burnett’s detachment from the book complicated this project. “We can have lunch any time you’re not writing a book about me,” he told Sachs by email. But many of Burnett’s closest friends and family, including Phillips and their daughter, Simone, cooperated. The result is that here Phillips tells the best stories about Burnett, including the way he disarmed the always menacing Jerry Lee Lewis during a recording session for the film Great Balls of Fire! (1989). As Phillips tells it, Burnett said to the Killer, “Hey, that’s a really nice piece, can I see it?” Lewis handed over the pistol. Then Burnett removed the bullets and tucked them into his pocket.

Perhaps it’s a combination of Burnett’s distance from the project, his sense of privacy (one report quoted a friend as saying Burnett changes his email address every few weeks), or Sachs’s interests, but what little the book says about Burnett’s faith makes him sound like just another “spiritual but not religious” pilgrim, with Christianity as his most frequent lodging.



Burnett had an engaging run as a moralist, both with the Alpha Band and especially on his solo album Proof Through the Night (1983). The Alpha Band’s “Rich Man” draws directly from James 5:1-6:

If money could talk it would cry out against you
To witness the lies you have told
And the lives you have sold out like a lamb that you slew
For the turning of tables on you
You have lived luxuriously on the earth
And led a life wanton pleasure
You have fattened your heart in the day of slaughter

Burnett once suggested that the multiple songs about mistreated women on Proof Through the Night are ultimately meditations on the United States. Consider two stanzas from “After All These Years” with that in mind:

I lost track of her way back in the Sixties
I even heard that she had tried suicide
There were rumors the government killed her career
Did she still look as scared after all these years?

Was she still as alluring, still as seductive?
Could she still drive you crazy by the look on her face?
Did she still have a whisper you could hear cross an ocean?
Was she still a scandal, still a disgrace?

Lyrics like those led a writer for The New Republic to misclassify Burnett as a right-wing rock musician, which would have placed him in rare company. Amid other blowback to his work, Burnett stressed that he was preaching as much to himself as to anyone else.

Since his years with Phillips, Burnett has reserved his sardonic voice for such targets as fundamentalism (never much defined), Pat Robertson (“as power-mad a religious figure as we’ve been afflicted with since Rasputin”), Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush — you can pretty much guess the rest of his heavies.

Now he plays a benefit concert for Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Minnesota. He burns Palo Santo wood sticks during recording sessions (“‘Musicians all want it because it ties all of the senses together, it’s part of the community, you know, everybody smelling the same thing,’ Burnett told the British site Bring the Noise”). He’s popped in at the annual Wild Goose Festival, which is equal parts “We are not the Christian Right” and “We are the LGBTQIAA affirming.”

Still, there is a whimsy about Burnett and his work that keeps him endearing, even to one who would like rather more of Proof Through the Night and less of comparing individuals to Rasputin.

If there’s a lot more to Burnett’s spiritual story, let’s hope that Steve Turner turns to a biography before long, or that Burnett even takes up a memoir. Meanwhile, we can count it as part of common grace in the 21st century whenever Burnett picks up a guitar and begins strumming.


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