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Burnett is a songwriter, singer, righteous and religious hepcat, architect of Americana, child of rockabilly, Tex-Mex and Louisiana music, as well as an influence on Bob Dylan, who clearly influenced him.
He's cut brilliant albums dating back to 1972, but Burnett has a much higher profile as a producer, the man behind everything from Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive? to the zillion-selling soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
This month, Burnett is releasing a two-CD retrospective, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, and his first new album since 1992, The True False Identity, both of which are shipping on Tuesday, May 16.
The sound on the new disc is dense, spooky and jarring, with wrenching Marc Ribot guitar leads, and lyrics that are somewhere between singing and speaking, preaching and pleading. The 58-year-old Burnett is on a pulpit, still critical in his vision of the world, but with the tempering that comes with age and self-acceptance.
"I spent my whole life trying to figure out if I was good enough to do what I was doing," says Burnett. "My folks listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong all the time, and I knew that I wasn't good enough to do that. And then I got to be 14 or something, I heard Howlin' Wolf, and I knew that I wasn't good enough to do that. And later I heard Ray Charles and then the Beatles, and I knew I wasn't good enough to do that. So there was always this sense that I feel like I'm here for a reason, and I'm playing music for a reason, but I don't hold myself to the standards that I hold other people to, a veil between me and my ability to do the thing I was doing. A veil of narcissism. There was also the reality -- I was facing the facts, because I wasn't as good as Ray Charles or Howlin' Wolf. But I've gotten to a point now where that doesn't matter to me anymore."
Burnett's new sound has evolved from some of the experiments he tried on his later releases, but it's evident that he's taken a major step forward in the architecture of the music, indicating that his work with other artists has caused him to make some shifts in his own.
"One of the very significant things that's changed is that I started working more on live music in the theater, and trying to reproduce sounds in a room dealing with live reflections. I worked almost my whole life in a laboratory environment, in a studio, where you can control sounds and reflections and move things around. When you go to a live environment, everything changes, and in a theater environment, it begins to be a problem of, 'How do I give this music volume without making it loud? Play quietly but with intensity?'
"All instruments are, in essence, drums, resonating chambers that you attack with a bow or a pick or breath or a stick or your hand. And so I began to treat all instruments as drums, and I began to limit the attack and to maximize the resonance. Getting that accomplished has been an act of alchemy, a reconceptualization of everything I knew."
It may be that having worked with the Coen Brothers (three times), Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders, and other filmmakers, along with musical artists like Elvis Costello, has broadened his perspective, and if there is indeed a newer, wiser Burnett at work on The True False Identity, it would seem to come from a place that is less cynical, overall, than the T Bone audiences have come to know.
"Cynicism and skepticism and all of the Greek sort of methods of dealing with life are meant to somehow shield you from fate, and I don't feel I need to be shielded from fate. I feel that the universe is essentially a benevolent place, and that if we cooperate with the universe, it'll cooperate with us." With a laugh, he adds, "So it's an area of my life I've left to . . . fate."