T-Bone Burnett, whose record-producing credits range from Los Lobos and Marshall Crenshaw to Elvis Costello, was bitten early--and hard--by the studio bug.
"When I was a senior in high school I had a little local band, and we went into a studio to cut a record. It was really fascinating," the long-limbed Burnett said, grinning at the memory. "A few months later I bought the studio."
That was 20 years ago in Fort Worth, Tex. And while he still lives there, Burnett since has covered a lot of artistic ground: He put out his first album in the early '70s, played in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and recorded three strong LPs with the Alpha Band, a Revue offshoot.
When he resumed his solo career, Burnett made three records: "Truth Decay," "Trap Door" and "Proof Through the Night"--the latter two for Warner Bros., which dropped him last year. He then hooked up with Elvis Costello, opening the show on the latter's solo acoustic tour. It took them through the United States, Europe and the Far East, and strengthened their mutual admiration society.
In the last few years--'85 in particular--Burnett has spent so much time producing records it's as though he bought a studio again. Maybe he should have.
Among the records he's produced or co-produced are Los Lobos' breakthrough "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (and the EP before that), Marshall Crenshaw's new "Downtown" and soon-to-be-released albums by both Peter Case and Costello. He left the studio long enough to co-direct a segment of the recently aired TV drama "Legends of the Spanish Kitchen," and he has more recording on the agenda: the debut record by Milwaukee's Da Bodeanes, and then the next Los Lobos LP.
"I decided that this year I was just going to produce records all year, take a year off from the road, from being a performer," Burnett said recently in a Santa Monica hotel room.
Sipping decaffeinated coffee and pulling on an occasional cigarette, Burnett spoke with particular warmth and enthusiasm about Costello's LP "King of America" (slated for a January release), and Elvis himself.
"Elvis truly is a brilliant guy. People always talk about how facile he is, about all the puns and how dense his lyrics are. But I've seen him sit down and write that stuff in five minutes. He has that kind of wit, that kind of mind."
While on tour, the two had many long talks about music and their careers. It turned out they both felt that the production of their records hadn't adequately represented their songs or vision. These discussions evolved into the studio teaming (they had already had a ball collaborating as the Coward Brothers on "The People's Limousine," a breezy, rollicking single).
"We decided to go in and make a record like Hank Williams or Elvis Presley would have made," said Burnett. "And I think the record is a classical rock 'n' roll record--and I don't mean like ELO. If you think of rock 'n' roll music as Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams, it's in that line. This music really swings."
After Burnett finishes the Los Lobos record, he plans to pare his production schedule to one album a year, partly so he can return to his own career. Burnett said that a few record companies are starting to express interest in signing him--including Warner Bros. Burnett still speaks highly of Warners ("probably the most humane of the big corporate labels"), despite being abruptly cut loose last year.
"That was a decision I didn't lose much sleep over," Burnett said. "And there were never any hard feelings, on either side. At the time, neither of use were very happy with the relationship, which changed in its nature. . . . I think they thought they were getting into a cult-artist situation."
Burnett isn't waiting by the phone for someone to offer him another record deal--he's far too busy. Busy producing the Da Bodeanes, busy writing songs (including one called "Gawd," which won't end up on the Rev. Jerry Fallwell's jukebox), and busy dabbling in journalism.
His latest piece of writing--a tongue-in-cheek script for a planned Elvis Presley cartoon TV show--appears in the December issue of Musician magazine. Said the author, "Well, I had read somewhere that this guy is making a cartoon show of Elvis Presley. And he was quoted as saying he was going to make Elvis bigger than Mickey Mouse. That offended me so deeply that I wrote a suggested scenario for the cartoon."
That's T-Bone Burnett: Even with his hectic schedule, he has time to come to the defense of Elvis--any Elvis.