The String King
T Bone Burnett on growing up in Fort Worth, playing with Bob Dylan, and why Andy Warhol matters to music
Though he decamped for Los Angeles more than thirty years ago, T Bone Burnett remains firmly rooted in the South. Born in St. Louis, he moved to New Orleans before spending his formative years in Fort Worth. Burnett has crafted a unique sound based in the blues, folk, and country. He’s currently playing guitar for the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss tour in support of their exceptional album, Raising Sand (which Burnett also produced). He’s also helming new album projects by Elvis Costello, B.B. King, John Mellencamp, and the Who. “I’m busy, busier than I’ve ever been,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.” And whether he’s serving as music’s most in-demand producer or supervising the sound track for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2002), Burnett has always infused his music with the tenets of his upbringing: passion, respect, and the truth. Here, the affable sixty-year-old chats about his idols, rock legends, and the best burgers in the world.
G&G: What’s your earliest musical memory?
Burnett: Mardi Gras. I remember standing on the street and people throwing jewelry, bands playing. I was like two or three. But the first song I remember was “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter. My parents had a lot of that stuff: Porter, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Rodgers and Hart. They had good taste and knew what to listen to.
G&G: Did you start playing music at a young age?
Burnett: We moved to Fort Worth when I was four and I probably started playing guitar at age ten. I started playing out in Fort Worth and we went and made a record when I was sixteen to try to scare up gigs. A studio came up for sale, and my friends and I bought the studio right after high school. We got a loan from the bank. It was like twenty grand.
G&G: Where were you playing gigs?
Burnett: My first gig was at the Skyliner Ballroom. It was Jack Ruby’s nightclub. We played things for the kids at school. There was sort of a teenage music scene in Fort Worth when I was growing up, lots of kids in bands. And there was a great tradition of music in Fort Worth. Hootie Ledbetter had been a street singer, Blind Willie Johnson, all of that blues stuff. Bob Wills was from there. The electric guitar was invented down the road. They used to take a phonograph needle and stick it through the wood in the guitar and then play it back through record players. A lot of bluegrass and country music was around too. It was a rich musical culture.