15 Minutes With St. Louis-Born Music Legend T-Bone Burnett

 In Culture, Feature

It was 1975, and musician, songwriter and producer Joseph “T-Bone” Burnett would begin touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a concert tour and band comprised of traveling musicians traversing the continental U.S. and into Canada. As if anything else could be so poetic and nostalgic.

“Bob has always walked close to the edge,” says Burnett today, sitting down to a coffee with cream at Eclipse restaurant in the Moonrise Hotel, in his hometown of St. Louis. “I think that’s where art is: on the edge. Art doesn’t really come from the status quo, or the middle. It comes from people on the borders, the margins.”

After touring with Dylan in 1975 and 1976, Burnett went on to have one of the most decorated careers a musician could hope for. He has produced for and worked with folk, rock and country greats: Elvis Costello, Elton John, Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, Lisa Marie Presley, Willie Nelson and on and on. He has also produced several Academy Award-winning and nominated film soundtracks, including “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” in 2000.

Born in St. Louis, Burnett’s family relocated to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was two years old. But he has returned to his hometown today as he has received a star on the St. Louis Walk Of Fame on the sidewalk of the Delmar Loop, joining inductees such as Chuck Berry, Maya Angelou, Ozzie Smith and Ike & Tina Turner.

What pushed you to move towards a life in music?
You know, it’s funny. I was just thinking about that, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. I used to spend all of my summers in St. Louis with my aunt. She was a great piano player, and she had an accordion. I started playing the accordion. It was this beautiful instrument — it had buttons and keys; it was abstract.

I got interested in music then. But when I was maybe 11 or 12, a friend had an old Gibson guitar leaning against the wall, and I hit that low E string. It just did something to me. It changed my molecular structure or something. And that’s about when I figured out that’s what I wanted to do. As far as living a creative life—I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where they built the B-52 planes that were used to drop bombs over Vietnam in the 1960s. The Carswell Air Force Base was also there.

Growing up, we were first told that we were going to get bombed by the Russians … and then we noticed that there would be B-52’s circling town all day and all night long. Maybe 10 years ago, I found out that they would take off at Carswell, fly west and refuel over the Pacific, drop bombs on Vietnam, and then fly back. They were bombing Vietnam out of Fort Worth.

There was just so much destruction in the air. Doing anything but being creative was unimaginable to me. I also grew up with a lot of incredibly young, brilliant creative people: architects, painters and musicians. We all just got into the arts in Fort Worth, which was also a big art town. Besides the destruction in the air, there was art in the streets. That’s just the way my life went. I couldn’t imagine it going in another direction.

Does the political age we’re going through now feel as tumultuous as the country was during the Vietnam War?
That time was a time much like this: a time of global unrest. It’s going on everywhere. We have a particular problem in this country around issues involving slavery and the Civil War that we still haven’t reckoned with. The narrative right now is that white people are being oppressed somehow. We’re living in this lie that’s causing this sort of friction and lunacy.

I’ve heard in a previous interview you mention that we all have slaves. What do you mean by that?
That is true. That’s another thing we’re not dealing with. Any of us, of any ethnicity, has hundreds of slaves working for us, whether it’s in China making clothes or in the Middle East making oil. This country was built on free labor—and it’s still being run on free labor, except now it’s being pushed away to other places where we don’t have to see or deal with it. But until we can deal with our own issues around slavery in this country, we’re never going to be able to deal with that effectively, because we’re living a lie.

What was it like, touring and being on the road?
When we’d tour in the south, we had bomb threats every night. We traveled with a bomb squad from New York City. “The Hurricane” (a song written by Dylan about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a Black professional boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder) was the cause of that. He brought out that record, which was a big hit. But it was intense.

I could list the names of all the incredible talent you’ve worked with over the years, but I have a finite word count. What has it been like working with so many greats over the course of your career?
I’ve never thought of what I do as a career at all. A career is a place where you focus on some kind of advancement, like lawyers or politicians. But I think artists just have their work. I just kept taking care of the thing that was right under my nose and did the best work I could. Then I would turn down work that I felt wasn’t connected to what I wanted to do in some way. Integrity means every part of your life is integrated. I’ve always tried to integrate the different parts of my life so I didn’t have to go off on a tangent and do something that would discredit any of the other work I had done.

Do you have a favorite collaboration or project you’ve worked on?
Definitely the soundtrack for “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I was deeply connected to that music and that movie and all those people. I’ve loved everyone I’ve worked with. I loved working with Sam Phillips, Steve Earl, Elton John and Elvis Costello.

Also I have to mention that your wife, screenwriter Callie Khouri, is a personal heroine of mine.
Mine, too.

What have you learned about creative relationships and partnerships?
Callie is very strong-minded. She’s got a backbone. I’ve learned a lot from her about being kind to people. Callie got out to Los Angeles and started out working in comedy shops and restaurants, waitressing. She has a real sense of how hard it is to make a buck and how much respect people deserve. She’s helped me be more generous, I’d say.

My mother was a very self-actualized woman back in the 1950s. She started working at a time when women didn’t work at all. But she loved working. She was independent. And she didn’t seem to have any trouble navigating her life, and I didn’t have any kind of understanding at all about the issues of equal pay and respect for women that feminism raises—that women raise, I should say. Through being with Callie and seeing her navigate her life, I see it. I see her offered less money for the same thing that I do, and she’s got a lot more experience than me.

I’ve started gaining an appreciation for how pervasive this disrespect of women is in the world. And I started realizing that of all the oppressed people, it’s the women who are the most oppressed, actually. I couldn’t see it, because I didn’t see my mom as oppressed in the least. She was such a powerful woman. But there’s no telling the stuff she had to deal with. I had no way of knowing any of that. But through Callie’s eyes, I’ve been able to see it much more clearly. And that’s another part of us being honest with each other—all of us. I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to really do that. But certainly we can do it one on one, you know?


Cover image courtesy of T-Bone Burnett.

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