Q&A: T Bone Burnett on 'Nashville,' Elton John's Comeback and Retiring as a Producer

The Grammy and Academy Award winner gears up for a busy year

T-Bone Burnett
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for LAFCA
T-Bone Burnett
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T Bone Burnett boasts a cache of credits that include albums by Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, Counting Crows and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – not to mention the acclaimed soundtracks for Cold Mountain, Crazy Heart, The Hunger Games and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Grammy and Academy Award winner has long been one of the most respected names in music and, at 64, he remains one of the industry's most in-demand producers.

Elton John's rockin' return to form, The Diving Board, John Mellencamp and Stephen King's musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and the Coen Brothers' 1960s New York folk homage Inside Llewyn Davis are just a few projects slated for 2013 that bear Burnett's unmistakable imprint. However, it's the ABC music drama Nashville — co-created and executive-produced by his wife Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) — that's keeping him busiest of all. As the show's executive music producer, he creates a musical world every week around a host of lovelorn characters.

Burnett chatted with Rolling Stone about his many projects and how he is a passionate advocate for Music City's up-and-coming songwriters.

Thus far, how's the Nashville doing? Is the show meeting your expectations?
Here's what I can say: The reason this show is important to me is that music is to the United States as wine is to France we've defined ourselves through music really since the beginning of our country. And the world of the musicians has gotten dismantled in the last 20 years due to new realities in technology; and Nashville is the last bastion; Nashville is the Alamo. So what I can tell you is, to the extent that this show shows the human side of musicians and the real-life struggles that we have; I think it's a positive thing. 

Inside the Music of Nashville

I'm spending almost all of my time now trying to keep the door open for these incredible kids that are coming after us, because the door has closed behind me to a life in music. It's closed behind a lot of us I was one of the lucky ones. Today it's very, very difficult for anybody to get a break. It's tough; and there's been a terrible publicity campaign going on for 20 years, and there's been a terrible blood among the culture there was a lot of bad blood toward the corporations because of their exploitation of artists and their exploitation of the audience; certainly the corporations alienated both sides of the equation, and both sides have gotten crushed, really, because the audience has experienced extremely low quality audio, worse quality audio than we had 60 years ago. And the artists are getting crushed because it's so hard to break through in an undifferentiated YouTube universe.

I'm hoping that this show will strike a blow for the importance of music in our country. Listen, the story of the United States is this: One kid, without anything, walks out of his house, down the road, with nothing but a guitar and conquers the world. And we've done that again, and again, and again Johnny Cash, Hank Williams,  Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters. 

When you talk about the way big corporations are demonized, and then also the way that the door has shut for up-and-coming artists: When it comes to this show, do you see yourself as a Midas kind of middle man between the two? Because when I talked to Buddy Miller about the show, he said that the network is really hands off in dealing with you, they give you a lot of carte blanche and license to make artistic decisions with the show's music. 
I'll tell you something: Realistically, really and truly, American Idol I'm just gonna come out and say this no, I'm not gonna say it because it's too inflammatory.

You can say it, I won't mind.
[Laughs] Of course you won't! But I'll get at it this way: You know, there are some extraordinarily talented people on this show, starting with Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio. They are every bit as good; either one of them can be a major star in [their] own right, and it would certainly make a lot of sense for this show to break them, don't you think? I would like to see this show get behind these artists as music artists and break them as music artists because they're good; because they deserve to be heard as music artists. And I think it would do great things for the show and I think it would do great things for everybody, really, to have a portal for all of these extraordinary writers who've gathered together in the Alamo of Nashville; who are not getting songs through the bottleneck. There is a surfeit of killer material there, if you know where to dig it out.

What is the atmosphere you're striving for with the music and how do you shape specific songs for specific characters?
Well, you know, each character has a history, a musical history; we worked for several months on the musical history of each character: what songs, where they came from, what the relationships were with their parents, all that stuff. What's the first record they ever bought? What's the first song they ever wrote? All those sorts of things to build a foundation for these kids to stand on. That was a big part of the preparation. 

The idea is to create a universe of music unto itself. It's no good in a show like this to do what everybody already knows. There's no reason to do that, and it's not exciting. And the thrilling thing, and I think the thing that invigorates the show is when you see a whole performance like Sam and Clare did at the end of first episode; like Connie and Hayden did at the end of [the last episode]. When the song is part of the story and it all comes together in a performance, and in a rehearsal, and in a recording session and you see the process of what people go through and how it comes together: That's the thing that I think is thrilling. 

You know, we've got the best market research in the world on this show, which is the iTunes charts. And you can see exactly what the audience responds to. It's pretty clear; the audience is telling us what they want and hopefully we can get it to them the way they want it.

When I was first watching the show, I would watch my Twitter feed with #NashvilleABC keyed in just to see what the general response was. And it was all of these people tweeting, "I didn't know I like country music."
[Laughs] It's not country music! We're not making country music! 

That's what I was gonna say. People don't know that it's really more on the Americana tip.
Well I don't think that. You know what I think it is? I think it's just pop music 2012, really. If you look at the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons or Adele – it's in the same stream as that music, I think. 

So songwriting-based music, then?
Yes! Songwriting-based music. That's right, that's exactly what it is all good songs. I mean, Marcus Mumford is a genius songwriter, you know? I mean, they're a killer band, but the fact that he's such a genius songwriter is what's pushing them through. And I think there are a lot of people that like songs, you know? [Laughs.]

Have you gotten any feedback from more high-profile songwriters Elvis Costello and the like who've contributed to the show on the cast versions of their songs? 
Yeah. Elvis completely dug Jonathan [Jackson's] rendition of his tunes, for sure. I haven't spoken to any of the rest of them about it yet.

Tell me a little bit about the difference between working in the studio with actors and working with musicians?
You can give actors adjustments. It's the same thing, really. You're always focusing on storytelling. So at the end of the day, everything comes down to "Is the story getting told?" Are you hearing the story? Are you listening to the singer, or are you listening to the story? Because what you want to be doing is listening to the story. So the singer has become a vessel, or transparent. That's what I work on most of the time with both of them. Each person is completely different, but I do like it that actors usually  it's fun working with actors because you can give them adjustments as a director would when they were doing a scene. You can get different tones out of them in different ways than you can singers, you know? [Laughs.] It's harder to tell a singer to do this when it's as if Henry Kissinger is sitting in the first row or something. [Laughs.]

Which actor in the cast has surprised you the most?
I watched the casting process; I haven't been close to the actual production of this show, but I did watch some of the casting process and all of them were obviously good at what they did.

Are there any surprises we can expect musically? What kind of songs are currently in the mix right now?
You know what, I can't say anything because I have no idea what's going on, so I really just cannot say anything. 

Is that how fast the turn around is? 
Callie [Khouri] just tells me what song to do and I do it, that's kind of the way it works. [Laughs.]

Are you involved in the song-selection process?
Well, no. I mean, I think she sort of chooses the songs and maybe she'll send me one and say, "What do you think of this?" I'm at her service in this. This is Callie's show and I'm just trying to help her make it as good as it can possibly be, and reach as many people as it possibly can and tell the truth.

Are there any projects that you haven't talked about yet or that have come up in recent weeks?
Well I'll get back with you on that one, on the future stuff. You know, I'm in the middle of a record with Secret Sisters right now that is very beautiful. They're making a beautiful record and I'm excited about that, and it's all songs that they've written so far; they've written about 15 very cool tunes. And there are several other other things that I'm just not gonna talk about right now, at this moment.

What's the current status of Elton John's The Diving Board record?
We're gonna record some more songs in January, I think.

Really?
I hope so. I can't you know, you can imagine what [Elton's] schedule is like. But we're gonna go in at some point after the first of the year and do some recording. I think he's been writing some more tunes; he's written a whole suite of tunes for something else; he's been productive as hell, so I don't know. It's nice to have the luxury of time to be able to look over a piece of work and see how it wears with you.

Would this be the third time you guys have gone in to work on it and track?
It may be. We may have come in two or three different times. We did with The Union, for certain there were three or four different spells of that one, so, yeah. The first batch of songs went incredibly fast and they were powerful, you know, it was an explosion! So, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Is it still gonna be a more raw, stripped-down affair?
Yeah, yeah. We're going in with the same guys; we're not retooling or anything like that, we're just keeping going.

Why do think it's the right time for Elton to do a record like that?
It was totally personal for me, because I was at the Troubadour he did a week at the Troubadour that changed this town [Los Angeles] and changed the world, really. . . . [Former Los Angeles Times music critic] Robert Hilburn wrote a very eloquent piece on him and everybody in town went to see him because he was killer, he was just killing it. So they were talking, this was maybe the 20th-year anniversary of it, or 50th-year anniversary or whatever anniversary it was. [Laughs.]

I think 40th year.
Fortieth, yeah! And they were talking about it and I thought, "Let's just do that let's just go in with a killer trio and do a rock & roll record." So [Elton] just went, "OK, let's go!" I don't know, maybe that's just where he's at, you know?

What's the extent of Raphael Saadiq's involvement?
So far he's just been playing bass like crazy, man. I'm looking for a place for him to sing; I hope he'll do a little singing, but so far Elton's done all the singing.

Well, he's good at that.
Yeah. [Laughs.]

I wanted to congratulate you on the Grammy nod [For Hunger Games].
Thank you very much, that's very kind of you.

Are you gonna have any involvement with the Hunger Games sequel?
No, I'm not. You know, that was a period of time  I'm not gonna do anymore of that stuff for a few moments.

Is that anything you want to comment on?
No, not really, I'm just going in a different direction right now in my life. I don't know how many more records I want to produce. Maybe I'll become a farmer or something, you know?

Really? Are you saying you're considering retirement?
No, not retirement. I'll never retire. I might just play music, you know? I love playing music; that's the best part of it. I've had a beautiful, long life in music and I don't want to [Bobby] Neuwirth just came over, and he wrote a song and we put it down and we're just playing music, and that [was fun]. The [producing], it's not as much fun.

Have you considered going back on the road again or doing your own record?
No. I don't know, I may just play piano in the living room or something. [Laughs.] No, I'm not talking about retirement. This is nothing to write about. 

Here's the problem, man and this is a longer conversation about a whole other thing but what I started talking about earlier, and it's my main concern in life, is that the audience and the artists need, I believe, need curators. They need people like you, who study culture carefully, that think about it carefully and try to shed light on things that are good and talk about things that aren't as good. That's an important role in the culture; and you and I have similar roles in a way it's a curatorial role to say, you know, when I'm working with Lisa Marie Presley, what I'm saying is, "I worked with Lisa Marie Presley, and I heard this, and it was good and listen to this; this is worth listening to; this is worth documenting and holding on to."

That goes back to the earlier question about having carte blanche and working with people who listen to what you say. They do that because I'm sure there's an audience that does that as well.
Yeah, well that's right. I think that's right, hopefully. I mean, I try to be a trusted source. I have my detractors of course, but I always try to do the true thing, I really do. And so, I'm going to be looking for that, whatever that is I'm gonna be looking for how I can help keep the door open. I have a 14-year-old daughter who is good, she's just that good, and that's not a dad talking, that's the part of me that's just supposed to know what's good in music, you know? And she goes to a school and there are a lot of kids there who are good, who are really good, who are playing and singing, and they've got access to so much more than I did when I was a kid. . . . These kids are blowing my [mind].

If you can, tell me a little bit about your work on the upcoming Coen brothers flick, Inside Llewyn Davis.
It's real songs but made up people. So it's not a docudrama.

So folk songs from that period? Cafe Wha? period and all that?
Yeah, there's some beautiful tunes in it.

Has working on that film been similar to Nashville in terms of working with actors?
No, it's very, very different. You'll just have to see it; it's where Nashville should go; everyone who's making Nashville should watch this film, because there are whole songs played out as part of whole story. You know, the Coens, they're insanely great.

And Justin Timberlake is in the film. What was it like working with him?
Wonderful, man. He's great! I love Justin. He's just absolutely great at what he does, or at least everything I've seen him do he's been great playing golf, to singing, playing, acting, being a comedian, you know, he's good. 

But taking on Sixties folk music, that's something new for him. Do you think it's a performance that will surprise people? How adept was he with the folk thing?
Justin is a team player, man. He just came on and did it. It's not a huge part or anything, you know, I don't think it's gonna redefine him. He just came in like he was on the team, like he was on Saturday Night Live, he just came in and killed it.

The film itself, does it have an element of dark comedy to it, like other Coen Brothers films?
Yes. [Laughs.] Yes indeed. Yes, it does. I can't wait for you to see it.

Getting back to Nashville, you talked before about the iTunes model. Do you feel like that has made the album model obsolete in the case of something like this? 
No, you know, the soundtrack has come out and it's a hit record. It's doing very, very well because it's one good song after another. It's a lot of good songs. Look, things change all the time in life. There was once a time when the polar ice caps came down to Connecticut. People buy singles, but that's the way it was when I was growing up, people bought singles.

Well that's even more to the point of what I'm getting at. One of the things I think is interesting about it, in terms of selling a record this has been the equivalent of if you had an album where you were releasing a new single from it every week instead of this process of "if a single is doing well, you have to wait four months to release another one." Maybe people can handle having six singles released in six weeks and consuming it that way.
Yeah. And the Beatles did it that way, too. The Beatles didn't put their singles on their albums, they would do four or five singles and then do an album with no singles on it. And it's a lot more like that now. Look, if somebody makes a good album with an identity, people still wanna have it. Adele's done it. Mumford & Sons have done it. People will rally around, I believe, artists who are telling the truth. We always have.

Do you have a favorite song from the show so far? 
No, not really. Let's see . . .

Or one in particular that's been really fun to work on?
It's all been really fun to work on, I have to say, It's been really great to work on. No, I can't think of a favorite song. I'm trying to think. I really like that song "Sideshow" a lot, by Charles Esten,

"No One Will Ever Love You," that song? I thought that was the show's most stirring song.
That's a beautiful song and Connie [Britton] and Charles both did a great job with it. And I like that "Wrong Song." I love the song "Wrong Song" — that's a funny song.

When I talked to Trent Dabbs about writing for the show, he said that he got more mileage out of it than other placements because of the show crediting the songwriters.
Well, see, for me this show is so much about the writers. To me, the writers of the music are the stars of the show. Because they're the ones providing all the identity; they're providing all this character and identity; they send in brilliant versions of their songs to draw from.

Have you considered contributing songs of your own to the show?
No, I haven't contributed any. . . . I haven't considered it. I wouldn't do it. I won't do it. [Laughs.] I've always not done that. I don't know why I've always resisted that. 

I wrote a song once for Roy Orbison called "When the Night Falls" and I was producing a record for Roy and he loved the song and wanted to do it and now I think, "What? I was out of my mind! What was wrong with me." [Laughs.] But there was something about that there was an old game that used to go down where a producer would say, "Well I'll take half the song if you'll, you know; I'll cut it, but you have to give me half the song" and stuff like that, and I just wanted to stay away. That's sort of thing I've just thought was unethical, really. I have too much respect for writers, for people who alchemize things like that.

Lastly, just in case you wanted to get back into it: Your thoughts on the American Idol thing?
Well, I can just say, look, American Idol has been on the air for, you know, 10 years, and they've broken two artists. With all of that air time, and all of that hullabaloo, and all of those phone calls and all of that advertising and everything else, they've broken two artists. I think ABC ought to be able to break three artists right off [Nashville] that I can think of right off the top of my head, and probably more! The people on this show, their talent is such that they could do that if they wanted to.

The two artists you're talking about are Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood?
Yeah, that's it, right? Who else? I can't think of anybody else.

I guess Adam Lambert does OK and
Well see, never crossed my desk. You see what I mean? I don't watch it, so the two people I know, the two names that I know that have been on American Idol, are those two. Any other name you said to me that has been on the show, I wouldn't recognize. Except, oh wait, the woman that was in, um, Showgirls, um, Dreamgirls! Jeanette Houston, right?

Jennifer Hudson?
But she didn't win. She broke off a movie. She didn't break off the show. So I would just leave her out. And anyway, she's just great in her own right, she didn't need that show.

American Idol does these package tours after the seasons end. Has there been any talk of doing a Nashville concert tour with the actors or anything?
No, there hasn't been. I don't think it's possible. I don't think there's time, you know, god, it's brutal this TV network television schedule is brutal.