LIANE HANSEN, host:
During his 40 years in the music business, guitarist and singer/songwriter T Bone Burnett has toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review, collaborated with Elvis Costello, and written the words and music for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie and Warren Zevon. He's also produced albums for Los Lobos, k.d. lang, Tony Bennett, Roy Orbison and Allison Krause. Burnett's work has garnered Grammy Awards and Oscar nominations and it's also presented substantial challenges.
As executive music producer for the film Walk the Line, Burnett coached Joaquin Phoenix to sing like Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon to sing like June Carter. But Burnett hasn't produced an album of his own since 1992, until this year, with the release of two CDs, The True False Identity, a compilation of original songs, and Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, a 40-song retrospective of his career.
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HANSEN: T Bone Burnett joins us from the studios of NPR West. What a pleasure to talk to you.
Mr. T BONE BURNETT (Musician): Great to talk with you.
HANSEN: Now, 14 years is a long time between records. Why now?
Mr. BURNETT: Well, it was the blink of an eye, but there were a lot of things always getting between me and making another record and I found myself in a place where there wasn't, and so I took the time and made a record and I'm going on the road.
HANSEN: I know. Going on the road. Is that a little scary?
Mr. BURNETT: I have to say I'm 58 now. It's very, very different from the old days when I was a kid and everything seemed threatening, and now it all seems like an extraordinary privilege.
HANSEN: Yeah. And you said, I mean to make this record, you might not have been able to make it until now without having the, seen the things you've seen or having gone through the things that you've gone through. Is there an example of something you've seen or gone through that shows up on this recording?
Mr. BURNETT: Oh, you know, I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds of them. When I was a kid, I was always wondering about it if I was any good or not, you know, because in my parents' house they played Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald constantly. But when I was a kid, I knew I couldn't be like Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald or when I got older, I realized I couldn't be like Howling Wolf, that these people had some kind of special knowledge, they were shaman, and I knew it would take me some time to get there. Even when I got to be a teenager and heard the Beatles, I knew that I couldn't get there either. There were four of these guys that all did this thing together, so I've been trying to keep an open mind and stay on the path and learn as much as I can, absorb as much as I can.
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HANSEN: Is Palestine, Texas about the Rat Pack?
Mr. BURNETT: It's hard to say exactly what the songs are about. You know, I'm from Texas and when I was growing up, I thought of Texas as a mind your own business, live and let live kind of place, you know? And there was a sense in the country of we can do this, you know, we're state of the art, we have know-how, we can take care of these problems. And somewhere along the way in the last 30 years, the problems have overrun us and we've seemed to have lost that sense of our ability to resolve difficulties, and I think that's what the song's about, something like that. It's about what happened to the, you know, what happened to James Bond and what happened to the state of the art country that I thought I was living in?
HANSEN: Palestine, Texas, it's interesting. It has kind of a hip-hop, rap feel to it. First of all, how much were you influenced by some of the new music that's come down the pike over the past 14, 15 years?
Mr. BURNETT: I, you know, I don't know. I was very influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets and, you know, Mellie Mel and Grandmaster Flash back in those days. I paid a lot of attention to that. I loved that, The Chronic. I loved Dr. Dre's record making, so I'm sure he's influenced me quite a bit. So I think I've drawn a lot from that, but also at the same time I've been there for a long time.
HANSEN: It was interesting to listen to that and think it's a departure for you and then going to the 40-song set and realize, it really wasn't.
Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, not really. I mean, the departure is the freedom with which I can do this stuff now without the self-consciousness and without the self-governance just, you know, let it go. I've got one of the great rock and roll bands of all times now with me. I've always been the worst guy in every band I've ever been in, you know, which is a policy with me.
HANSEN: This is not something you deliberately try to do though, really.
Mr. BURNETT: It's the way it started and I realize there was something good about that, you know.
HANSEN: Tell us about the song called Earlier Baghdad, The Bounce. You said this is a Memphis version of King Lear?
Mr. BURNETT: Well, yeah, I said it's, you know, it's a country blues version of a story of a man who's risen to great power and sees it vanish underneath him and begins to face himself and his predicament and then at the very end, pulls the rug out from, the non-existent rug out from under himself and everyone else.
(Soundbite of song Earlier Baghdad, The Bounce)
Mr. BURNETT: (Singing) I am not important. I am a broken man. Throw myself on your mercy. You have wronged me. I built my life in vainglory. I lost sight of the light.
HANSEN: What's the song that has the lyrics, Someone stole my identity, I feel sorry for them? That's a really funny line.
Mr. BURNETT: Well, that is Hollywood Mecca of the Movies, is the name of that song.
HANSEN: I don't know what it says about your relationship with Hollywood.
Mr. BURNETT: Everyone's relationship with Hollywood is complex. You know, it's an interesting town. You know, it's full of all of the stuff that the arts and the theatre have all been full of. All gods are worshipped. You know, Hollywood is full of pseudologica fantastica. You know?
HANSEN: Yeah, and you're comfortable being worshipped as a god, right?
Mr. BURNETT: No, I'm not. When did that happen?
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Mr. BURNETT: (Singing) Who are you and why are you sneaking around? In this joint, there are no cameramen allowed. He is a personality not a person. (Unintelligible), crime wave, a scanner. What a town, what a great town. We didn't build this place to last forever, sodium pentothal, pseudologica fantastica, honesty is the most subversive of all disguises. I said goodbye along time ago. You must not have heard me.
HANSEN: I have to ask you about a song that's on the retrospective CD and it really came as a surprise to me. I didn't know what I was going to hear. You do a cover version of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, which was sung originally in the movie by Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. But you know, your version, it's a little like Lou Reed doing Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend.
Mr. BURNETT: At the time I thought I was doing Tommy James and the Shondells, but yeah, that groove is very much in a Velvet Underground world, which is also, it did grow out of like Crystal Blue Persuasion or something.
(Soundbite of song Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend)
Mr. BURNETT: (Singing) Gifts on the hand may be quite continental. Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Gifts may be grand, but it won't pay the rental on your (unintelligible) or help you at the Automat. Men grow cold as girls grow old. We all lose our charm in the end. But square-cut or pear shaped, these rocks don't lose their shape. Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Let's rock.
(Speaking) My great friend, Earl McGrath, lived next door to Anita Loose, who wrote the play, and was - just before she died took it over to her apartment and played it for her and he said she sat there in her big easy chair with headphones on and listened to the whole thing with a broad smile on her face and that was, there was a great reward in that. It somehow connected me to the rest of my life, the earlier part of my life.
HANSEN: So man, going out on tour. Determined not to be the worst one in the band this time, huh?
Mr. BURNETT: No, I'm not. I absolutely am the worst one in the band, I'm happy to report.
HANSEN: Yeah, but they're doing your songs, so don't you have the last word?
Mr. BURNETT: That's true, yeah. At the end of the day, they're, it's all one band.
HANSEN: T Bone Burnett, his new recording of original songs is the True False Identity and a 40-song retrospective of his career, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, are both out on Columbia Records. And T Bone Burnett joined us from NPR West. Thanks a lot.
Mr. BURNETT: Thanks so much for having me.
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HANSEN: You can hear T Bone Burnett's new music and some of his classic material at our Web site, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.