In 1971, Led Zeppelin released its fourth album. T-Bone Burnett was in Fort Worth, Texas, plotting his first album. And Alison Krauss was born. These are milestones in recent music history, but they don't belong in the same sentence. The careers of a heavy metal mystic, an idiosyncratic songwriter/guitarist/producer and a pitch-perfect bluegrass star shouldn't align, let alone coalesce. Last year, on an album called Raising Sand, they did. Popular music is funny, even twisted, that way.
"WTF?" was the predictable reaction to a collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. "WWTBD?" (What Would T-Bone Do?) was the right response. Krauss and Plant had crossed musical paths before — specifically, at a Lead Belly tribute concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 — and both musicians owe an incalculable debt to the blues. But an album together? A touring all-star revue? A Grammy? Their collaboration should have combusted and collapsed under the weight of the absurdity and novelty of the concept. What would their producer and guitarist, T-Bone Burnett, do? What could he do?
Burnett did what he's been doing for decades. He finds — by intuition, care and more experimentation than is acknowledged — the essence of the individual talent and the individual soul of each song. His ear is shrewd but never predictable. That's the thread that ties his best known production work: The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse, Counting Crows' August and Everything After, Los Lobos' By the Light of the Moon, Gillian Welch's Revival and, of course, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. That catalog just nicks the surface. But that catalog is as timeless, as essential as twentieth-century American music gets.
T-Bone Burnett was born in St. Louis in 1948, "on the south side of Barnes Hospital." ("My father said that makes me a Southerner," he laughs.) By the time he was three, his family had moved to New Orleans, and then to Fort Worth. But as a boy, he spent summers in St. Louis with an aunt, soaking up baseball and the music on 78s (lots of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart tunes) owned by his family. By the time he was a teenager, he was ready for the escape route of rock & roll.
"When the Beatles came around in 1964," he explains from his home in Los Angeles, "they convinced all of us that that was what we should do with our lives. Fort Worth was so isolated that there was no way to get a gig. We were living under such a low ceiling. There were no roads out. It seemed like we were trapped."
Burnett began recording at the age of sixteen, working with his own band and with blues acts and rockers around Fort Worth. He finally made it out of Texas in the early '70s and relocated to California, where he fell in with poets and pickers, and came to the notice of Bob Dylan, who signed him up to play guitar on the Rolling Thunder Revue. In the '80s, Burnett released a suite of dense and slippery solo records and tried his hand at country rock with the Alpha Band. As a songwriter, he swung between cynicism and altruism, fear and faith, but his briny voice and nomadic style made him a man without a niche. He retreated from the spotlight and became an accomplice, a spooky good guitarist and a producer and engineer with a painterly sense of sound.
"Tones are like colors," he says. "If you take two colors and blend them together, then a new color is created. You can take two envelopes of tones and push them together in such a way that when they join at one corner of the envelope, they're still individual tones, but there's a part where they become a new tone. That's the exciting world of sound. It's a never-ending story. It's like getting involved in wine. You're never going to learn it all."
Over the years, Burnett has mastered the art of selecting the right songs and musicians for a project. On Raising Sand, he guided that process, resulting in a range of familiar and unfamiliar songs open to the strange concordance of Krauss and Plant's voices. "We all talked on the phone several times," Burnett says of the preproduction. "There was one weekend where we collected maybe 100 songs. I brought them a song called 'Polly Come Home' (written by Gene Clark of the Byrds), that was the nail we drove into the wall that we hanged the record on."
Burnett generally elects to track live in the studio, and that was the case with Raising Sand. "I love being in a room when the singer is singing and the players are playing," Burnett says, "and it's all happening at once. There's a great intensity that comes from that, that you don't get when everybody is overdubbing and making everything perfect. Perfection is a second-rate idea."
True enough, though Burnett remains a perfectionist when it comes to the integrity of what he calls "the library," the vast collection of music owned and controlled by an industry that, in his view, cannot be trusted with such treasures. This year, he launched "Code," a somewhat secretive venture intended to oversee the production, duplication and distribution of music across domains, a quixotic attempt to "future proof the library."
"We're optimizing every format," he says. "It has to be done. The record business is facing an apocalypse. The apocalypse will be when the master tapes are destroyed and all we are left with are these non-pedigreed digital copies of uncertain origins."
Over the last three years, Burnett has reemerged as a songwriter and solo recording artist, releasing The True False Identity and a 40-song retrospective in 2006 (his first solo projects in fourteen years), and this year, Tooth of Crime, based on his work with playwright Sam Shepard. And after decades away from touring, he has returned to the stage and will be with Plant and Krauss when they finally arrive at the Fox Theatre. But save for a few solo songs during intermission, he'll be in the shadows, doing what he's always done: illuminating and clarifying the essence of a performance.
"I've spent so much of my life sequestered in a studio creating my own reality that I missed out on something that's terribly important," he says. "The impression made from one live moment can be equal to thousands of impressions made through mechanical reproduction. I'm 60 now, and I'm a guitar player in a rock & roll band, which is where I wanted to be in the first place."