T-Bone Burnett: Zen And The Art Of Music The singer, songwriter and producer says his approach is simple: "Just listen until it sounds right." Burnett has been getting it right for a long time, and his latest project is the film Crazy Heart, for which he wrote several songs for the main character, a broken-down musician played by Jeff Bridges. Burnett talks to Terry Gross about the film and about his storied career.
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T-Bone Burnett: Zen And The Art Of Music

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T-Bone Burnett: Zen And The Art Of Music

T-Bone Burnett: Zen And The Art Of Music

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new movie "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges plays a washed-up, alcoholic country singer and songwriter. Several of the songs he sings in the film were co-written by my guest, T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the soundtrack for the film. Burnett is a songwriter, singer and record producer with a mighty impressive list of credentials.

He toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review; he produced the concert film "Roy Orbison and Friends"; was composer and music producer for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," for which he won four Grammys; was executive music producer for the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line" and produced last year's Grammy Award-winning album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Let's start with a scene from the beginning of "Crazy Heart." Jeff Bridges' character, Bad Blake, has fallen so low from his days as a country star that he's now playing bowling alleys and dives. He's just arrived at a bowling alley in a small town in Colorado, where he's greeted by the manager.

(Soundbite of film, "Crazy Heart")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Jimmy) Bad Blake, welcome to Pueblo. I'm proud to meet you, sir.

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (As Bad Blake) Hi, there.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Jimmy) Oh, I've been listening to you for a hell of a long time. Did you have a good trip?

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Long but good, yeah. I played Clovis, New Mexico last night. That was some great country. Glad to be here.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Jimmy) Well, down there is the bandstand. I'll catch up with you later, but sure is good to have you, Bad, makes my day, and there's no smoking in the alley, but you can sure finish that one.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Oh, I'll take a McClure's up with a beer back, darling.

Ms. ANNA FELIX (Actress): (As Barmaid) $4.75

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Oh, it's on my tab.

Ms. FELIX: (As Barmaid) No tab.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) I'm Bad Blake, darlin'. I'm - hell, I am the band.

Ms. FELIX: (As Barmaid) Jimmy, tab?

Unidentified Man #1: (As Jimmy) Mr. Blake? We have a real nice room for you over at the Starlight Inn, and of course, all your meals are taken care of, but I'm afraid we can't let you run a bar tab. It's in the contract. Mr. Green(ph) of Green and Gold(ph), he put that in himself.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Did he?

Unidentified Man #1: (As Jimmy) Yes, sir.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) Well, if you and Jack have an agreement, we're going to have to stick with that. Don't you worry yourself about it. How much?

Ms. FELIX: (As Barmaid) $4.75.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Jimmy) Mr. Blake, let me personally offer you all the free bowling you want.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Crazy Heart." Now, let's hear Jeff Bridges sing one of the songs from the film, co-written by my guest, T-Bone Burnett.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Know")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) (As Bad Blake) I don't know, baby, where we stand. Where's the future that we planned so long ago? I don't know. I don't know if you're my friend (unintelligible) back again. (unintelligible) baby I don't know. You'd think by now, I'd know better, ain't got a lot to show. (unintelligible).

GROSS: That's "I Don't Know" from the soundtrack of "Crazy Heart," one of the songs co-written by T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone Burnett, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

So you wrote these songs for Jeff Bridges, well, some of them for Jeff Bridges, some of them for - well, Colin Farrell does some singing, too. Jeff Bridges isn't a singer. So did you have to write songs with a non-singer in mind?

Mr. T-BONE BURNETT (Singer, Songwriter, Producer): No, actually, I've done that before in the theater, where you have to, you really have to sort of - you turn it almost into rap music or something like that, poetry, you know. But Jeff has music in him. Jeff has, he has the ability to make music. It's - making music's a funny thing. Like, one person could sit down at a piano and hit three notes, and it sounds like a cat on the keys, you know. Another person can sit down at the piano and play the same three notes, and it sounds like music.

So Jeff is one of the latter people. Although he's not a singer by trade, or really even by craft, just by - he's an amateur. He does it because he loves it, you know, but he's able to conjure music, so...

MARTIN: Now, what about his range? Did you have to write songs that were good songs but for a limited range of notes?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, well, I don't know about the range so much, but definitely the tone. He's - he has a very deep chest tone, like Clooney did, really, when we did "Man of Constant Sorrow." We had another singer do that because - a guy Dan Tyminski, who plays with Alison Krauss, and you know, we had to match -George actually is an incredibly good singer, but bluegrass is a specific kind of thing, and in that movie, the song had to be believed as a hit or the movie wouldn't work. And so we brought in, like, a hit singer to do it.

But we had to match the tone of the singer with George's tone. Like, a reedy Bill Monroe kind of singer wouldn't have worked for that part, so - because of George's speaking voice.

So with Jeff, we just had to - we had to find prototypes, really, that were in his range. It was more that than writing for a limited number of notes. So you know, rather than some higher singer like George Jones or Buck Owens, we chose Don Williams and Leonard Cohen, and singers who sang deep as sort of the jumping-off point.

GROSS: How did you figure out what kind of songs the Jeff Bridges character would write and sing? How did you figure out who he was musically?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, we did a timeline. We did a back-story for him, and we had a writers' table for about six months and talked about this character, Bad Blake, who he was, what he had listened to, where he had grown up, you know, what kind of stuff he liked, what he didn't like, who he wanted to be, who he'd ended up, all - you know, answered all these questions about this character.

GROSS: So who did he like? Who were his influences as far as you were concerned?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, you know, Leonard Cohen. I think Townes Van Zandt, you know, Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong. And you know, there was a wide range of stuff that we figured he probably liked, that he came from, you know. And Lightnin' Hopkins, too, who was one of Townes Van Zandt's inspirations, you know.

GROSS: So are these songs that you would have written if you weren't writing in character? Would you have written any of these songs for yourself?

Mr. BURNETT: No, no I wouldn't have, although I must say the bridge to "Hold on You" is one of my favorite things I've ever written. So, you know, I take the inspiration gladly from having this character to write for. But no, I wouldn't have written them for myself.

GROSS: Did Jeff Bridges have to be convinced to sing, or was he already comfortable with that?

Mr. BURNETT: Are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: You know, you would have to convince him not to sing, you know. Jeff and I have been - you know, we started out on "Heaven's Gate" together in 1978. We went up there - David Mansfield and Stephen Bruton and I. A few of us went up there for three weeks to do music, and we ended up being up there for six months with very little to do.

And we ended up - every night we would, you know, end up in someone's room playing guitar and singing songs and other things. But umm. So we started this act, really, 30 years ago - 32 years ago, now. And you know, I've never known Jeff to be reticent to sing under any circumstances.

GROSS: Okay, let's hear another song that you co-wrote with Stephen Bruton, the late Stephen Bruton, to whom the film is dedicated. And this is called "Somebody Else." So tell us about writing this song.

Mr. BURNETT: Well, this was one of those that grew out of the writers' table, and I think, you know, either Stephen and I said I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else, you know - which becomes the first line that Bad Blake sings in the movie.

So you know, it was - we wanted to draw it out of a blues - it's a very sort of traditional blues melody that Stephen Bruton put a couple of different changes to. So it doesn't - it's not a 12-bar blues, but it follows that kind of melody, and it all grew out of these conversations we were having about who this guy was, what his, you know, what was eating him.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "Somebody Else," co-written by my guest, T-Bone Burnett, from the soundtrack of "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges sings.

(Soundbite of song, "Somebody Else")

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Bad Blake) (Singing) I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else. I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else. Who I'll be tomorrow is anybody's guess. What was thought to be the right way turned out the wrong way after all. What was thought to be the right way turned out the wrong way after all. (Unintelligible).

GROSS: That's Jeff Bridges, singing one of the songs my guest, T-Bone Burnett, co-wrote for the new film "Crazy Heart." We'll talk more with Burnett after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer and music producer T-Bone Burnett. He co-wrote some of the songs and produced the soundtrack for the new film "Crazy Heart." It stars Jeff Bridges as a washed-up, alcoholic country singer and songwriter.

You know, Jeff Bridges was quoted in the New York Times, in an article by Margie Rocklin(ph, about working with you, and let me read what he said. He said: I really want to pull this off. My process is that I work on stuff. I memorize my lines. I do the work. But Bone has a kind of Zen approach, where he just kind of creates space for this thing to occur. It kind of makes me anxious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I think it's really funny that a Zen approach should make somebody anxious, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: Especially The Dude, you know, Jeff Bridges.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

Mr. BURNETT: The Zen-ist of all actors.

GROSS: So what does he mean by your Zen approach?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, you know, I try not to touch the thing. I have to say, there was a time when I started out making records, producing music, that I wanted to control everything. I wanted everything to be - you know, I wrote arrangements out, and I wanted the drummer to play all the beats and the fills that I imagined hearing. And after a few, you know, months or years of that, I got tired of it and realized that I was always more excited by other people's ideas than my own. So my method in going into the studio is to do as little as possible, just to show up and listen really hard until it sounds great.

GROSS: And did you think of that as making Jeff Bridges anxious?

Mr. BURNETT: You know, if - I didn't mean to make Jeff anxious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: In fact, I don't think I did, but maybe I did a little bit. But you know, whatever it was seemed to have worked, so - so I'll - but you know, no, I don't - it's hard to think of Jeff being very anxious about that. I know he probably wanted things to be more laid out in some kind of concrete way, but, you know, music's not like that. Music is a conjuring trick, and I've seen Jeff do that many times.

Jeff isn't like an excellent lead guitarist, but he can play beautiful lead guitar, you know, and he's not like Pavarotti or anything, but he can sing a mystical version of a song and be - and make it completely involving. And I've seen him do it time and time again.

So the task here, if I can call it that, was to get him into that place where he could conjure, and that's - how do you do that? I don't know how you do that. You just sort of wait for it to happen.

GROSS: Right, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know for some people, like for some people, I think you bring in a bottle of whiskey.

Mr. BURNETT: Well, yeah, probably, yeah. We may have done that, too.

GROSS: Now, you said that Jeff Bridges is never reticent to sing, but there are other people, other actors not known as singers who you've worked with in singing parts, including Colin Farrell in this film, "Crazy Heart," and also Joaquin Phoenix in "Walk the Line." Were they as non-reticent as Jeff Bridges when it came to singing?

Mr. BURNETT: No, well, Colin, Colin was - you know, Colin's Irish, first of all, so I think all Irish people sing. I think Colin comes out of that tradition. Joaquin, on the other hand, was - you know, he quit every day. You know, it was such a daunting task to sing Johnny Cash, and you know, Joaquin worked so hard that he lowered his voice an octave in the process of making the movie to be able to sing those low notes.

And you know, actors, first of all, actors do a mystical thing when they act. Reese, when she came in to sing "Wildwood Flower"...

GROSS: This is Reese Witherspoon, who played June Carter Cash in the film.

Mr. BURNETT: Well, she came - well, I'll tell you. Quickly, I'll tell you a story about Joaquin. When we did the song "I Walk The Line," there are five key changes in that song, or there are five different keys. Every verse is in a different key or a different register. And we rehearsed that for months and months, and by the time we got to the studio, Joaquin sang it one time, straight through, live.

You know, he just - he just channeled Johnny Cash for those three minutes or whatever it was. It was extraordinary to see, and the same thing happened with Reese Witherspoon. She came in to sing "Wildwood Flower," and she was working with Roger Love(ph), her vocal coach, back in the studio for a couple of hours. I was walking around the house listening.

And after two or three hours of working on it, I heard, you know, I heard the door slam in the studio, and then I heard the next door slam, and then I heard the other door slam, and then the door to outside slammed, and she was outside. And she just bent over at the waist and screamed at the top of her lungs, as loud as she possibly could, I think, a blood-curdling scream. And I figured at that moment, she was ready.

So I walked downstairs and found her, and I said you want to go do this now, let's just do it, you and me.

And we sat down. I sat down on the couch, and she was standing right beside me, and we played "Wildwood Flower" live, me playing, her singing, straight through, one time. You know, and it was - and she did it. She channeled, you know, the Carter family for a moment there. It was an amazing thing to watch after struggling with it for so long.

GROSS: Let me ask you: If I had been there, and I heard all those doors slam, and I heard her scream, I would think oh, she needs a few days off, as opposed to what you thought, which is oh, she's ready now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: Well, we had - by that time, we had been working a couple, two or three months. So you know, I think she had let the tension out that had been building up.

You know, there's that balance, that Zen balance between trying and not trying - where you're not doing either one, you know, where you just start doing the thing, you know. If you're trying to do it, you'll probably be too tense, and if you're not trying to do it, you'll probably be too loose, and so you have to find that place where you're neither tense nor too loose, and you can just perform - an alpha state or whatever it's called, you know.

GROSS: Okay, so here's Jeff Bridges' Zen approach that he's talking about with you, yeah.

Mr. BURNETT: Really.

GROSS: So should we play Reese Witherspoon here?

Mr. BURNETT: Oh, yeah, sure.

GROSS: So this is from the soundtrack from "Walk the Line," and that's T-Bone Burnett and Reese Witherspoon from the soundtrack of "Walk the Line."

(Soundbite of film, "Walk The Line")

Ms. REESE WITHERSPOON (Actor): (As June Carter Cash) (Singing) Oh I'll twine with my mingles and raven black hair, with the roses so red and the lilies so fair, and the myrtles so bright with the emerald dew, the pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.

I will dance, I will sing and my laugh shall be gay. I will charm every heart in each crown I will sway. When I woke from my dreaming my idols were clay, all portion of love had all blown away.

GROSS: That's Reese Witherspoon with my guest, T-Bone Burnett on guitar. Reese Witherspoon was playing June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line," and that's from the soundtrack.

And T-Bone Burnett has co-written most of the songs for the new movie "Crazy Heart," which stars Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic, over-the-hill country music star, who's now playing a lot of dives.

So do you - are you always confident that you have the take, that this is the take?

Mr. BURNETT: Only after I am, you know. Once - if you hear it, if you hear the thing, I mean, the producer is essentially the proxy for the audience. You're the first audience. So that's your responsibility. It goes both directions. You're responsible to the artist, to get the best out of him or her, and you're responsible to the artist - I mean, to the audience - to do the same thing, to get the best out of the artist. So, you know, you just listen until it sounds right.

GROSS: T-Bone Burnett will be back in the second half of the show. Here's Jeff Bridges singing another song that Burnett co-wrote for Bridges' new film "Crazy Heart." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is songwriter, singer and music producer T-Bone Burnett. He's produced recordings by Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett and K.D. Lang, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, John Mellencamp and Elvis Costello. He was music producer for the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk The Line." Burnett co-wrote some of the songs and produced the soundtrack for the new film "Crazy Heart" starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up, alcoholic country music songwriter and singer.

Now, some of the songs in this movie "Crazy Heart" were co-written with Stephen Bruton, and his name also came up in an interview I recently recorded with Geoff Muldaur about Muldaur's latest album "Texas Sheiks," which features Stephen Bruton on guitar. And Geoff Muldaur described that project as a way to distract Stephen Bruton from the fact that he was in chemotherapy and dying of cancer. And it sounded like Bruton had plenty of distractions, because he was also really sick when he worked with you on the soundtrack to "Crazy Heart" and, you know, the soundtrack is dedicated to him. What was it like to work with him when he was facing death and dealing with chemo?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, you know, we all treated Stephen as a person and not as a disease, you know, so we just went ahead. He, you know, he was full of life and he wanted to live and he was - he had his full - he was fully engaged and fully alive, and so we treated him as if he were fully alive. I think a lot of times there's a temptation when people get a serious disease like that to start treating them like a disease, but we were encouraged to just go ahead and treat Stephen as if, you know, the way we always did. And he was, you know, he actually, when he went into his decline, it was very steep. But all the way through this movie there was - he was fully engaged. And so we just, you know, it was full of laughter, and I must say I learned a lot about being alive from Stephen during that time, about being fully alive.

GROSS: Now I read that you told Jeff Bridges to study Stephen Bruton and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: Well, yeah. I didn't have to tell him that, by the way. But I did tell him that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what was it about Stephen Bruton's life that you thought would be valuable for Jeff Bridges in his role in "Crazy Heart"?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, Stephen, first of all, he was one of us. He was one of our closest friends. You know, he and I had been friends for our whole lives, and he and Jeff had been friends for 30 some-odd years, and Stephen had lived that life. Stephen had, you know, he had been in Kris Kristofferson's band during Kris's hay day when he was writing all those great tunes and was out on the road. And for us at the time, you know, when we were all in our 20s, that was tall cotton - high cotton, whatever the word is - phrase is.

And, you know, and then he sort of - Stephen is a great writer. You know, he's one of our very best writers, but he wasn't willing to really go to Nashville and promote his songs. He didn't want to do that game. He didn't want to, you know, he didn't want to play any of the show business games. So what he ended up doing was playing dives, you know, and he drove around in a Suburban - the same kind of car Bad Blake drives. It may have even been the same color. It may have even been the same car, for all I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: But, you know, he drove around. He would go out for weeks on end with his guitars and his clothes in the back of the Suburban and drive around for, you know, hundreds of miles every day to play these shows and come back with less money than he went out with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: You know, it was a - he was a gold - he was a mine of information for Jeffery, down to the things he wore around his neck, down to the kind of, you know, bracelets he wore or the way he held a guitar.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a song that Stephen Bruton co-wrote with Gary Nicholson. And this is the song that was the big hit that Jeff Bridges character, Bad Blake, had back in his more successful days, and it's called "Fallin' & Flyin'." And would you tell the story behind this song?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, at our writer's table one day, Stephen was getting up to leave, and Jeff said where are you going? And he said I'm going where I shouldn't go and doing what I shouldn't do. And Jeff said well, there's a song right there. And Stephen said, actually, it is - already is a song, and he played it for us. It's a song he had written with Gary Nicholson.

And it sounded, you know, it sounded immediately like a hit song. It sounded like Bad's hit song. It had enough Buddy Holly in it and, you know, Bad was very much a Texas musician. You know, that's one of the things, he comes from that place rather than the Nashville kind of place. It's probably more Western in Bad's music than country, you know. In the country and Western balance, it's balanced more toward Western. And that had a lot of that kind of Texas music in it, and it seemed like it would be a good hit song for Bad.

GROSS: Yeah. It's got another great line in it: Funny how falling feels like flying for a little while.

Mr. BURNETT: For a little while.

GROSS: For a little while, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So why don't we hear the version of this so we can get to hear Colin Farrell sing? Why don't we hear the duet version that Jeff Bridges does with Colin Farrell?

Mr. BURNETT: Right on.

GROSS: And Colin Farrell plays the young, still very successful country music star who was mentored by the Jeff Bridges character. So here's the duet from the soundtrack of "Crazy Heart."

(Soundbite of song, "Fallin' & Flyin'")

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Bad Blake) (Singing) I was going where I shouldn't go, seeing who I shouldn't see, doing what I shouldn't do, and being who I shouldn't be. Oh, then a voice told me it's all wrong. Another voice told me it's all right. I used to think that I was strong, but lately I have lost the fight.

It's funny how falling feels like flying for a little while. It's funny how falling feels like flying for a little while.

I got tired of being good. Started wishing that I'm feeling free. I kept acting like I thought I should, and went on back to being me. I never meant to hurt no one. And I was glad you had my wing(ph). There's such a thing as too much fun. Yeah, this must be the price of free(ph).

It's funny how falling feels like flying for a little while. It's funny how falling feels like flying for a little while.

Never see it coming till it's gone. It all happens for a reason, even when it's wrong - especially when it's wrong.

GROSS: That's Colin Farrell and Jeff Bridges singing from the soundtrack of the new movie "Crazy Heart," and my guest T-Bone Burnett was a producer of the film and of the soundtrack. He co-wrote many of the songs on the soundtrack, although not the one we just heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now we were talking about Stephen Bruton, who co-wrote many of the songs on the soundtrack, including the one we just heard. You knew each other at least when you were in your teens, maybe before that.

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, you know, we met, probably, you know, when we were 12 or 13 years old. We both started teaching guitar, or working at T.H. Kahn(ph) Guitar Shop in Fort Worth, Texas. And we were both, you know, we both - we would, you know, sit around most of the day and look at guitar catalogs and, you know, dream about what we would get when we grew up.

GROSS: Which you probably got when you grew up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, we did. We did. Yeah.

GROSS: And his father had a record store. So did you get access to a lot of records you wouldn't have had access to if not for that?

Mr. BURNETT: We did. You know, back in the days before the worldwide Web, you know, you couldn't find a Skip James record, for instance, you know. There were artists that you would hear about - Robert Johnson or something like that -that you would hear about that would just be more legends. You wouldn't think they really existed. Even the Stanley Brothers I thought lived in some other century, you know. And they weren't carried in the main - none of those records were carried in the mainstream record stores. But Stephen's dad was a musician and a very fine jazz drummer, and he collected not only - in his store, you know, that was back in the days, too, when stores were a reflection of the people who owned them and ran them. You know, they reflected their taste and the things they thought were important about music.

So Stephen's dad had incredible taste, and he was able to get hold of records that, you know, we wouldn't have known how to - we wouldn't have had the wherewithal to find ourselves. And they started ordering a lot of records from, you know, Folkways and the Library of Congress, and, you know, Smithsonian, wherever that stuff comes from. And, you know, so we would hear all these beautiful old bands and, you know, records from - that just weren't on the Top 40 or anywhere close to it.

GROSS: Now, did any of those records that you discovered in Stephen Bruton's father's record store end up on soundtracks that you produced for movies?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. Yeah. Well, "Oh, Death" was one. Stephen played me "Oh, Death" by Dock Boggs, you know, from a Folkways recording that ended up - Ralph Stanley - well, there was, you know - so - and we've listened to a lot of Ralph Stanley, listened to a lot of Stanley Brothers. Then, you know, 40 years later or however many years later it was, I got to meet Ralph Stanley and I got to record him singing the song "Oh, Death" that I learned from Stephen in, you know, 1958 or whatever it was, you know.

GROSS: That's such a great record. Why don't we hear it?

Mr. BURNETT: Okay.

GROSS: Okay. So this is Ralph Stanley singing "Oh, Death" from the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" And it's a cappella, so you're not accompanying him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And why'd you have him sing a cappella?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, he start, you know, in the beginning I thought we would do it like Dock Boggs did, with just a banjo and vocal. You know, but Ralph, first of all, doesn't play that Dock Boggs-style of banjo, so when we got in to do it, it didn't make as much sense him playing banjo and singing it as it did for Dock Boggs to do it. You know, there's a difference in their styles. And then when we thought about it, you know, it made sense for the leader of the Klan in this particular rally that we were filming to not play banjo. You know, it made more sense for him, really, to just sing it a cappella. And then, of course, it was much more terrifying that way.

GROSS: You mean the song itself was more terrifying.

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. Yeah, more...

GROSS: More alone in the world?

Mr. BURNETT: Right. More stripped bare, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Okay. So let's hear it. This is Ralph Stanley "Oh, Death," produced by my guest T-Bone Burnett for the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Death")

Mr. RALPH STANLEY (Singer, musician): (Singing) Oh, death. Oh, death. Won't you spare me over till another year? Well, what is this that I can't see, with ice cold hands takin' hold of me? Well, I am death, none can excel. I'll open the door to heaven or hell. Whoa, death someone would pray. Could you wait to call me another day? The children prayed, the preacher preached...

GROSS: That's Ralph Stanley singing "Oh, Death" from the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a soundtrack which was produced by my guest T-Bone Burnett, and was so successful. It sold like nine million copies or something.

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, so far.

GROSS: So far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: I actually don't know how many, but a lot, or something up in that range.

GROSS: We'll talk more with T-Bone Burnett after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist and music producer T-Bone Burnett. He's won Grammys for producing the soundtrack of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the album that brought together Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He's also produced recordings by Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and Tony Bennett with K.D. Lang.

Now, you're a performer, but you're also a producer. You've produced many records and - in addition to movie soundtracks. And I think you had your first recording studio when you were 20?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, when I was 17, actually.

GROSS: Wow. And...

Mr. BURNETT: Just when I got out of high school, I bought a studio.

GROSS: You bought a studio?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. Well, you know, back then, studios weren't that expensive, first of all, you know. There wasn't that much equipment and there weren't that many studios. But, yeah, there was - yeah, we did. Two friends of mine and I bought a studio�


Mr. BURNETT: �called Sound City. It was called Sound City at Fort Worth, Texas. And it's where "Hey! Baby" had been recorded by Bruce Channel. So, sort of, a few of the hits that had come out of the North Texas area had been recorded there.

GROSS: So were you producing people who were considerably older than you when you were 17?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. And also, there was a country joint in town called Panther Hall that I think had been bowling alley and had been turned into a country venue. And, you know, every weekend, acts would come through there, Conway Twitty and Doug Kershaw and people like that. And after the shows, they would come down to the studio, you know, for the bag of speed and some�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: �some - a couple of bottles of Crown Royal or something and recorded till eight or nine in the morning. So we did that kind of stuff a lot. And then we would - there were a lot of local bands that were playing at the time that wanted to make records. And then there were the odd things that came in from all over the place. I did whatever I could do to keep the studio running at the time.

GROSS: Now, was it in the �80s - I think it was in the �80s that you produced, like, a teleconcert of Roy Orbison with all stars, including Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt. Was that in the �80s?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, it was either the late �80s or the early �90s, something. It might have been �92.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I'm such a big Roy Orbison fan. What was it like to work with him?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, it was a tremendous learning experience. The first thing I learned from him is he sang incredibly quietly. Like all of those big notes and all of that tone was - came from his chest, but it was all very quite and it was just huge. But, you know, if you stood three feet away from him, you could barely hear him, but if you got up close, you could hear all that tone and you could hear all that, you know, that singing, that conjuring he did.

And so I learned a lot from that. I learned that, you know, if you like, for instance, if you hit a drum hard it'll choke off the - it'll choke off the tone of the drum. And the same if you sang hard, it'll choke off your tone because your vocal cords - if you don't know how to sing hard, you know, your vocal cords will get tight and things will get a choked up. But if you hit a drum softly, you get a tremendous amount of tone. Then if you turn it up loud, it sounds, you know, a thousand times louder than hitting a drum hard. And but -and it's a same with all instruments. So you can only hit an acoustic guitar so hard before it starts folding up.

And I've learned a lot of that from Orbison. And then also, he taught me a lot about that way he wrote songs, like he didn't write songs in a form like verse, verse, chorus, verse. He wrote songs that would start on his lowest note and go to his highest note. And he would just find a way to arrive - to leave the one and arrive at the other, like "In Dreams" is a good example of that. It's not -there are no parts that repeat themselves. It's like a small - like a little aria, like a little pop aria or something.

GROSS: And in "Crying," it just keeps building and building�

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: �till he gets to a high note that you can imagine�

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: �he'd be able to reach. And he�

Mr. BURNETT: Right.

GROSS: �he nails it.

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. "Running Scared." There's so many of them like that.

GROSS: So, did you mic him differently? Or, you know, was he miked differently because he gets such big notes, but as you're saying, it's not like he's shouting them?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. No, we didn't mike him differently, really. But one of the interesting things was, you know, we wear head sets when we record a lot of times. And he wouldn't have his own voice in his headsets when he was singing because he said that he had sung so many years without monitors live, that he'd learned how the notes felt in his jaw. So he would have the band really loud in his ears without hearing himself at all and would just sing very quietly, feeling the notes in his bones.


Mr. BURNETT: Wild, you know.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer T-Bone Burnett. Let's hear a song he co-wrote with Roy Orbison and Neuwirth, which Burnett recorded years later for his 2008 album, "Tooth of Crime."

(Soundbite of song, "Anything I Say Can and Will Be Use")

Mr. BURNETT: (Singing) I got a torture-chamber orchestra and a delirium hotel. I got a hallucination rattlesnake to twist my skills through. You're my friend, but I'm going to kill you. Somebody's got to monitor all this darkness, darkness, darkness.

GROSS: My apologies for that. We accidentally played the wrong song. But right now, we're going to take a short break, and then we'll hear more of my interview with T-Bone Burnett.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist and music producer T-Bone Burnett. He co-wrote some of the songs and produced the soundtrack for the new film, "Crazy Heart." One of your really successful projects was producing the album of duets between Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin, and country and bluegrass star Alison Krauss. What was your job on the project? Did you bring them together? Was that your idea?

Mr. BURNETT: No. I think Bill Flanagan, I think, had the idea. I actually think it grew out of a - you know, Flanagan has a show called "Crossroads." And on those shows, he finds somebody from the rock and roll world and somebody from the country world and they do songs together. And I think his idea was to put -I think it was his idea to put Alison and Robert together. And, you know, my job, really, was to find things that neither one of them had done before. You know, Robert had come mostly from the Delta and Alison had come mostly from the mountains, from mountain music, Appalachian music. So we, you know, so we found Delta songs for Alison to sing and Appalachian songs for Robert to sing and then, you know, hoped to be able to find some place in the middle where they could coexist.

GROSS: Did you choose "Your Long Journey"?

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah, I did choose that song. Another song that Stephen Bruton, by the way, had hipped me to.

GROSS: Wow. Is that by Doc and Merle Watson? because it has Watson and Watson on the credits.

Mr. BURNETT: Doc and Rosalee, Doc's wife, wrote that, I think.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

Mr. BURNETT: Yeah. But, I mean, I'm sure it comes out of an old church song, but what a beautiful song that is.

GROSS: It's a beautiful song. Tell us why you choose that for Plant and Krauss to duet on.

Mr. BURNETT: You know, I don't - just because I love the song. You know, there were several songs that I'd been carrying with me for years that I've never done anything with. One of them was that, and one of them was "Killing The Blues." Roly Salley had played me "Killing the Blues" at Nick Gravenites' house in probably the 1970s, or something like that. And I heard it that one time, and I had remembered it. I carried it with me all those years. And then when this record came up, I thought, oh, there's a song that neither of them would do that would be interesting, that maybe we could find the middle ground for, you know.

GROSS: So I'm going to play "Your Long Journey." Is there anything that you'd like to say about it?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, you know, it's - I just think it's a beautiful hymn. It's a beautiful tune.

GROSS: Did you have to do any work with Robert Plant to get him in the right space for a song like that?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, I mean, yeah. But - yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Could you describe what?

Mr. BURNETT: Well, you know, look. That was a tune that Alison was more comfortable with. That's a song that's in Alison's wheelhouse, and Mike Seeger came in and played autoharp on it. So the way we recorded that, it was Alison sang it. And then I think she sang Robert's part and taught Robert how to sing that song.

GROSS: Okay. All right. So here's Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Your Long Journey" which is from their album together. which - it won a Grammy, didn't it?

Mr. BURNETT: It won a few, yeah.

GROSS: Won a few. all right. Produced by my guest, T-Bone Burnett.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Long Journey")

Ms. ALISON KRAUSS and ROBERT PLANT (Musicians): (Singing) God's given us years of happiness here, now we must part. And as the angels come and call for you, the pains of grief tug at my heart. Oh, my darling, my darling, my heart breaks as you take your long journey.

GROSS: That's Alison Krauss and Robert Plant from their album of duets, "Raising Sand," which was produced by my guest T-Bone Burnett, who, among many other things, also produced the soundtrack for the new film, "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer. and T-Bone also co-wrote some of the songs for the film. We're out of time, but I want to squeeze in one more question, which is: You've worked on so many different projects over the years. Do you still have like a music fantasy yet to be fulfilled?

Mr. BURNETT: No, I don't think I do, really, you know. The - maybe to be good, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNETT: That would probably be - you know, if I stay at this long enough, I might get good at it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: T-Bone Burnett, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. BURNETT: Thank you, Terry. Great to talk with you.

GROSS: T-Bone Burnett co-wrote some of the songs and produced the soundtrack for the new film, "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer and songwriter. We'll close with Bridges singing another song Burnett co-wrote for the film.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Know")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) I don't know, baby, where we stand. Where's the future that we planned so long ago? I don't know. I don't know...

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.

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