Interview: T Bone Burnett, the Coen Brothers’ Music Guru
T Bone Burnett has become American music’s premier Playlist Maker, the man who makes transcendent soundtracks for filmmakers like the Coen Brothers. He talks to Andrew Romano and dives deep into the folk revival scene that produced Bob Dylan. The Showtime special Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ will air Friday night.
Once upon a time, T Bone Burnett was known solely as a great musician: singer, songwriter, former guitarist in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. But in recent years Burnett has become something more. He’s now America’s premier Playlist Maker—our country’s first Curator-in-Chief.
These days, if a movie or television show has a transcendent soundtrack, chances are Burnett had a hand in it. The Hunger Games. Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning Crazy Heart. ABC’s Nashville. The Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix. And, of course, the immortal films of Joel and Ethan Coen, from The Big Lebowski to O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the latter of which sold eight million copies and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year.
Burnett’s latest Coen Brothers collaboration, Inside Llewyn Davis, features some of his finest work yet. The movie tells the story of a Greenwich Village folksinger struggling to survive the harsh winter of 1961. Off stage, Davis can be a selfish jerk. But when he sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” or “The Death of Queen Jane,” his arrogance suddenly seems justified. Without Burnett’s expert song selection and immaculate arrangements, the illusion would be shattered. The movie simply wouldn’t work.
To find out how Burnett pulled it off, we recently gave him a call. The conversation began with Llewyn Davis but soon veered into headier territory: the secrets of arranging, the silliness of Auto-Tune, the necessity of curators, the end of rock stardom—and what makes a great song great.
To me, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie about the pain of being a nearly great artist. Llewyn is very good—but he’s not good enough. In real life, that’s a common story, but it’s rarely captured on screen.
It is true. Most of the stories that we like to tell ourselves run toward some sort of happy ending. They trend toward some sort of victory at the end. But the Coens aren’t interested in that kind of story.
At the end of the film, we get a glimpse of Bob Dylan—one of the greatest ever. What separates these two species—the great artist and the nearly great artist—and what do you think the movie is saying about the gap between them?
There are so many things that play into this idea we have of success. I guess Dylan’s greatest success is that he always played the game in his court. Llewyn Davis is trying to play it in his court, but events are rolling over him constantly.
As an artist, you have to have strong boundaries. There’s a great story about Michelangelo. He was painting the Sistine Chapel, and he was angry at one of the bishops or cardinals, so he painted him in with donkey ears. The cardinal went to the Pope and said, “You have to make him take them out!” And the Pope said, “That doesn’t look like you at all.” [Laughs] The Pope didn’t want to go to Michelangelo and say, “Take those donkey ears off that guy.” The Pope was afraid of Michelangelo.
Those are the kind of boundaries that Dylan set for himself. And it’s the rare person who has the courage to do that, or even the idea that it can be done. That’s a significant difference between what Bob Dylan is doing at that moment, in 1961, and what Llewyn Davis is doing at that moment.
You recently said, “The film, truly and seriously, is the story of my life. I’ve lived that arc at least three times.” Sounds like fun.
Yeah, at least three times. Maybe 20 times. And actors can live it 20 times a day: they get excited about a role and get auditioned and get rejected. Just rejection after rejection. That’s, like, “Welcome to the club.”
Were you attracted to the film because it reflected your own experience?
I think every member of the cast has said the same thing, in one way or another. But yes, it has a deep personal resonance for me. And more so because I plied the same trade as Llewyn Davis for a while. I played those dives.
You and the Coen Brothers spent six months creating a history and a post-history for Llewyn Davis. So what happens to him next? Does he wind up producing soundtracks for a pair of darkly comic Jewish-American filmmaker brothers?
[Laughs] Yeah. He can do that. I first said the film was the story of my life lightheartedly, at a screening in Telluride. And I also said, “I’m telling you this because I want you to know that it has a happy ending.”
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is kind of Llewyn’s theme—we hear it at both the beginning and the end of the film. Tell me about the history of the song and why it was chosen for such a prominent role.
The inspiration for the story started with Dave Van Ronk, and I think “Hang Me” was one of his key songs.
But the theme of the song underscores the whole movie—the theme of whatever that is. Is it suicide? Is he just giving up? Is he a guy who’s been caught for killing somebody and now they’re going to hang him? It’s an elusive song. And the story of the movie is elusive, and the reality that Llewyn Davis is seeking is elusive.
He can create it, and he does. The first thing you see, when Llewyn is singing “Hang Me” at the start of the film, is him creating reality for three minutes, so you get to know him before this other thing called reality intrudes.
Llewyn’s rendition of “Hang Me” is very true to Van Ronk’s.
The way Marcus [Mumford, who portrays Llewyn’s dead folksinger partner] played the song, it was more like a folk song. So there were these two versions, and by the time we first see Llewyn Davis, he’s reinventing the song to get it away from the way he did it with Marcus’s character.
I’m interested in why some songs were rearranged and others weren’t. "The Death of Queen Jane" seems very different from the versions I know.
It was Llewyn’s audition moment, so it was the one that we spent the most time on. It was the most complex mood. When the character goes for his audition at the Gate of Horn—you know, “where the truth can enter”—he’s going to go for the most truthful moment he can find, right out of his life, existentially. So finding that, and finding the arrangement that was forward and backward at once, was difficult.
“The Death of Queen Jane” became “Queen Jane Approximately,” and then it became “Sweet Jane.” Jane kept showing up for the next 40 or 50 years through songs. [Laughs] So we added some of those songs in there. Llewyn’s version could have been a predecessor to both of them.
When you say that you added in a little Dylan and Lou Reed, what do you mean?
Some of the approaches that Dylan took to guitar, some of the approaches that Lou Reed took to chord changes … Some of it came out of the way that Dylan played “Girl from the North Country”: the positions he played. Oscar [Isaac] came up with a lot of the arrangement.
But mostly it was just, How do you play a folk song individually? If you listen to a lot of the early blues records, or a lot of the early folk records, they weren’t just people strumming and singing along. Things were carefully arranged. Willie Dixon very carefully arranged all those Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. None of them are jam blues. Everybody was playing arrangements.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan was on the radio this morning. An early version of it. And I was surprised the changes were so different than the changes I remembered. It was a beautiful, complex guitar part.
Things can kind of get averaged out over time, but we wanted to add the kind of detail that people would have been adding back in 1961.
It’s such a beautiful arrangement. I really love it.
I do too. Thank you. Oh, and one of the other things we did with “Queen Jane,” just so we could find how we wanted Llewyn’s performance to be arranged, was a 1965 version of it—a folk rock version, with 12-string guitars and all that.
Yeah. It’s beautiful. Personally, I just wanted Bud Grossman [the folk impresario who tells Llewyn he isn’t commercial enough] to know that there is some money there. [Laughs] But I understand why he didn’t see it that way.
I’m dying to hear it.
It’ll come out eventually. Soon, I hope. We’ll be rolling out some new stuff over the next couple of months.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What the first great song or sound that you can remember hearing?
The first song I remember thinking “that is incredible” about was a song called “Begin the Beguine.” You know that song?
Yeah. My parents had some beautiful shelves of 78s down in the lower room. I used to go down there and spend a lot of time with them. That’s one from when I was a kid—maybe 4 or 5. I remember putting that on and I left the room I was in completely. I was transported into this place where the Beguine was happening, whatever that was.
I still don’t know what it is.
[Laughs] Nope. Don’t know and don’t care. And I’m sure the song wouldn’t have anything like that effect on me now. I haven’t heard it for 50 years. But at the time it was heady. That’s when I started realizing you can create place with music. Music is a place. Music is atmosphere and environment. That’s something that’s been very important to me. Everything I do I try to do with a sense of place.
A lot of people pick up a guitar or play some piano, but they don’t have that sixth sense for what actually makes music work, beyond the notes on the page. Nor do they have much interest in it. Was there a time when you realized that you were different? So much of your career comes back to that sense of place and atmosphere, whether it’s in your own music or in the production and curation work that you’ve done.
It’s always been this way for me. I don’t know anything else. And I don’t know that everybody else doesn’t have it, either. Maybe people just get too busy. [Laughs] Maybe I just have a lot of idle time.
But there is some kind of feel or something. Because I’ve seen it over and over: one person can sit down at a piano and play three notes and it just sounds like somebody playing three notes. But somebody else can sit down and it sounds like a song. Same piano, same three notes. Why is that? I don’t know.
Unlike a lot of young musicians, you never wanted to be the shredding lead guitarist type. You didn’t go for technical expertise. You seemed to care about what you could make out of sound as opposed to how much sound you could make or how fast or expertly you could make it.
I always went for the groove. I love two things: the sense of place and the groove. And I love a real tribal, communal style of making music, too.
People compose in tone now. There was a sense in classical music in the 1930s that everything had been done. Then Stockhausen and these composers started going off in different directors. John Cage started composing not in melody and pitch anymore, really, but in tone. So you started getting all those beautiful tone compositions: Bartok and Debussy…
The same thing happened in folk music, which turned in rock ‘n’ roll, which then turned into rock, which then just sat there like a rock for awhile. [Laughs]
But you can play rock ‘n’ roll on anything. You can play it on a lot of drums. Because it’s just a feeling. To me, it’s a description of transcending, of getting beyond, of getting out of the schedule into some timeless place.
I know it’s an impossible question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because you’ve helped create a lot of them and I’m interested to hear how you’ll answer: What makes a great song great?
That is an impossible question. But certainly it is something that everybody knows about. A great song, every single person knows—somewhere deep down. A song like “You Are My Sunshine”… every word of that title. “You” is the other. “Are” is existence. “My” is personhood. And “Sunshine” is light. You can’t deal with any bigger subject than that. There are these huge, huge subjects that you’re dealing with in a way that everybody can talk about. That makes a great song.
So it’s not just as simple as a great melody.
I think melody exists in speech. Melody exists in life. There’s a drone that’s going on around us all the time, and we’re all speaking and blending with it. But I think the reason that melody doesn’t get old is that tone is the essential reality of melody. Pitch is a way to refer to a melody, but the tone is what really forms the note. In their tones, people have hundreds of different pitches at all times.
It’s more primal than a sequence of notes.
That’s right. It’s this other thing. Compare the Auto-Tune way of singing today with the way Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops sang. He’s not even trying to sing in tune. Or Otis Redding. It’s irrelevant. They’re just trying to sing the song. And yeah, their pitch is great. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that’s not what they’re doing. They’re telling a story.
It’s such a strange aesthetic: to desire absolute perfection of pitch and create a technology to achieve it. Why do we even think that’s necessary? It’s not like we were all wishing that people were singing more on key in, say, 1975.
Exactly. That’s part of what happened once we went through the digital looking glass. [Laughs]
I was thinking this morning: one of the dumb things the hippies did was that we ended up mechanizing celebrity. This whole idea that everybody is a star. So now we have Facebook. It’s sad.
I’ve heard you refer to the last century as “the century of the self,” but it seems like there’s a lot of “self” in this century, too.
I think the century of the self has provided us with this: the mechanization of celebrity, the artist as a public collage. There’s no authorship. Everything is written by everybody.
This sounds grandiose, but you’ve come to play a role in American culture. How do you define that role?
I see my role as a curator. I’ve always seen it as that.
When you say curator, what do you mean?
There’s an impulse in life to say, “I went to this place at this time and I saw this and it was really good.” And if you do that honestly and well, then you’ll gain people’s trust, I think.
In this undifferentiated YouTube universe where millions of videos are being posted a day, it’s impossible for anybody to curate all of that, so there’s this notion of the hive mind—that the world will be curated through what’s trending, and that the internet will mediate society.
But you see, I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in technology. I would like it to be true, but I’ve been watching it and technology is very often destructive. I’m in favor of good technology that helps people, but I don’t believe in technology as a deity or a savior.
Don’t you think that an individual like you—a great curator—has an even more important role to play in our “undifferentiated YouTube universe” than he did before? The most popular thing isn’t always the best thing.
I seek that out. I don’t look at what’s trending. I never have. I believe in the individual. I still am in the stream of thought that started in this country with Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman. I trust people. I don’t trust the machines.
I was just reading about your new Basement Tapes project with Bob Dylan. Basically, Dylan’s publishing company recently discovered lyrics that Dylan wrote in 1967 for the Basement Tapes sessions, and now you’re going assemble a group of contemporary artists at Capitol Studios to complete the songs. How did the project begin? Did Dylan call you up and say "Here are some old lyrics, do what you want with them"?
Yeah. Jeff Rosen [Dylan’s manager] did. He found some old lyrics, showed them to Bob, they talked about what to do with them, and they decided to just give them to me. [Laughs] To play with. And I thought, “What fun!”
So how are you playing with them?
I don’t think I should announce anything yet because we have to do all this stuff in order, and I haven’t been given my orders yet. [Laughs] But when it’s time, let’s talk about it.
Could a kid starting out today do what you have done? Could he or she build a career like yours?
I don’t look at what I’ve done as a career, because I’ve always taken care of the thing right under my nose. I’m not climbing a ladder. I’m just surviving. [Laughs] But I think a kid starting out today, a musician, has to look at every form of media. That’s what I did. From my earliest days of getting involved in music, I was also involved in film and art and other things. We were putting image and music together back then, and people are certainly going to have to do that. Transmedia, multiplatform—that’s the future of storytelling. Because technology is shifting so fast.
It still seems like a bleak time for someone who wants to write and sing songs for a living. Sort of like the winter of 1961 for Llewyn Davis.
It certainly is. It’s going back to a much more non-professional time. But I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Musicians brought a lot of scorn down on themselves with ridiculous behavior. Rock stardom and all of that. And now a lot of tech people mock rock stars by posing in the surf with models and their yacht in the background—“we’re the new rock stars.”
Rock star is an odious distinction for a musician in the first place. I’m sorry that ever happened. That excess and all that. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.
So at least there’s a upside to the implosion of the music industry: the end of ridiculous rock stars.
I will say this. I think music is in very good hands. The young musicians are incredible. And I believe art is always subversive, so the musicians will find their way.