ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with Day to Day. T-Bone Burnett is best known as the producer of American roots music, hits like the soundtrack from "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" He's also put together a CD by the unlikely musical couple of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and country bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. But T-Bone Burnett is also an artist in his own right, and he recently released "Tooth of Crime." It's a batch of songs he started writing for a Sam Shepard play of the same title back in the '90s. Burnett sat down recently with our music journalist Christian Bordal to discuss the new CD.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) People tell me I look like hell, well I am hell...
CHRISTIAN BORDAL: In the mid-'90s, after producing big hits for artists like Los Lobos, Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett was ready to hang it all up.
Mr. T-BONE BURNETT (Musician; Music Producer): I just said, you know, I'm going to quit because I was sick of the record business. Everything you made had to fit through a very narrow slot, and it was so restrictive that I wasn't interested in it anymore. I felt that I kept getting given the same jacket to alter, you know, or something like that.
BORDAL: That's when Sam Shepard called to say he was putting on a new version of his play "Tooth of Crime" in New York and asked Burnett to write the music.
Mr. BURNETT: So I said yes immediately because it seemed like - you know, it was exactly the thing that was in my history. It was in a new direction, and it was in a direction of complete freedom, like what is this play going to be? What's the music on this play going to be? It doesn't have to fit anything. It doesn't matter. It could be anything.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) We lived outside the law. We struck with wild desire. We blinded all we saw. We made the sun our fire...
BORDAL: "Tooth of Crime" tells the story of an aging rock star who gets challenged to a kind of musical duel to the death by an up and comer who wants to take his place. Below the surface, however, the play tackles a wide range of issues like the isolation and corrupting influence of fame and the narrow labeling of styles and marketing distortions of pop culture. It felt personally relevant to Burnett in the '90s, but he says the play is even more relevant to society today. And that was a message he now felt motivated to deliver.
Mr. BURNETT: The press had completely abdicated its role as the guardian of the democracy. It had turned into the media and was just doing nothing except creating celebrity. OK, so there's no press anymore. The government's going insane, so there's no government anymore. Who's going to say - somebody's got to say something. It felt like to me like there was a tremendous responsibility falling on the artists to say something.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) It's the red age...
BORDAL: Burnett has been on a crusade against digital music recording and what it's done to two-dimensionalized sound. But at the same time, he loves the democratization of music that's been made possible by digital files sent over the World Wide Web.
Mr. BURNETT: Let's see where the artists come out of this with this freedom, let's see what happens. I think the artists are going to save us, you know. That's my hope. I feel like all the leverage has swung to the artists because none of this huge machine they've built works without what they call content.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Is this not the red age? The demented photo stud age. The time of no ruin. We've broken the genetic code and left it bleeding by the road. We're murderers...
BORDAL: For his entire career, T-Bone Burnett has been fighting to broaden people's ideas of what can be considered popular music. And he's been surprisingly successful, helping to produce hits out of obscure roots music like the bluegrass of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the proto-rockabilly of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand." But Burnett has always been a somewhat reluctant lead singer.
Mr. BURNETT: I like it better when I'm not singing. I like it better working with Robert and Alison and listening to them sing. You know, I love that.
BORDAL: As a solo artist, Burnett has never really found a unique personal style, and his adaptability is part of what makes him a good producer. But it leaves him a little too nondescript to be a good frontman. His voice has the same high, reedy quality as Roy Orbison's, who also was a native of Fort Worth, Texas. And in fact, during a songwriting lesson Orbison gave there just before his death, he collaborated with Burnett on a melody that later became a song called "Kill Zone" on "Tooth of Crime."
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Mr. BURNETT: I didn't want to do anything with it, you know. It was this melody I was holding and I loved and I wanted to take care of. But I didn't want to really do anything with it until this play came along. And the feeling of the melody fit the world and the atmosphere of the play.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) For I ask you your dreams while you are sleeping...
BORDAL: Sam Shepard's play "Tooth of Crime" is an uncompromising, confrontational work, and T-Bone's music for it is a throwback to a time when art did not compose itself around what might be saleable.
(Soundbite of music)
BORDAL: Gutbucket blues is the foundation of "Tooth of Crime" but twisted in different directions. Having been conceived as part of a play, some of the songs stand alone better than others. But Burnett is unconcerned. At the age of 60, with all the successes he's achieved as a producer, he feels he's entered a place of freedom to do whatever he wants. And he intends to take advantage.
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BORDAL: For NPR News, this is Christian Bordal.
COHEN: T-Bone Burnett's new CD is called "Tooth of Crime." If you'd like to hear some songs off the album, go to our Web site, that's npr.org/music.
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COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.