A long time ago -- nearly a quarter century ago, alas -- I had a long conversation with a young songwriter named Bono about a question that fascinated both of us: Why is most Contemporary Christian Music so lame? Bono had, at that point, all but given up hope of finding work by other believers that really fired him up. After our conversation, I went back to my home in Urbana, Ill., and grabbed some cassettes. One contained some material by Bruce Cockburn, primarily the Humans album. The other was T-Bone Burnett's Truth Decay. Both were new to Bono and he said he liked them -- a lot.
I bring this up for a simple reason: The post-O Brother Where Art Thou? Burnett is about to make another rare visit to the public spotlight, with a new album and, finally, a large anthology of solo and ensemble material from throughout his long and mysterious career in the studio. A glance at the new song titles on The True False Identity certainly suggests that Burnett remains rather faith-haunted. They are "Zombieland," "Palestine Texas," "Seven Times Hotter Than Fire," "There Would Be Hell to Pay," "Every Time I Feel the Shift," "I'm Going on a Long Journey Never to Return," "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies," "Fear Country," "Baby Don't You Say You Love Me," "Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)," "Blinded by the Darkness" and "Shaken Rattled and Rolled."
T-Bone's wrestling matches with his angels and demons are well known. So I am sort of mystified at this faith-free Newsweek mini-profile by Jac Chebatoris. Read it yourself. Did I miss something? Here's a sample:
During his 40 years in music, the 58-year-old, Texas-bred Joseph Henry Burnett (he's been T Bone since he was knee-high) has worked with such artists as Roy Orbison, the Wallflowers, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Los Lobos and the bluegrass master Ralph Stanley. He toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and formed a band of his own with a couple Rolling Thunder colleagues. But he's better known for his work on film soundtracks: the sea-changing, five-time-Grammy-winning music from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; the Civil War-era country music from "Cold Mountain." Most recently, Burnett served as executive music producer on the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk the Line." For that picture, he tutored Joaquin Phoenix on his musical approximation of Cash, and coached Reese Witherspoon on how to sing like June Carter -- which helped her to take home an Oscar.
See any ghosts in there? Were there any interesting developments in that Dylan tour? And the albums after that? Just asking.
The introduction to a new Billboard interview does start with this:
Given his recent successes as a top-flight producer, it is easy to overlook that 58-year-old T Bone Burnett had a vital yet under-the-covers recording career of his own -- as a member of the Alpha Band, which grew from the group that backed Bob Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue, and as a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist with a penchant for tunes braced with wit, heartbreak, social commentary and Christian spirituality.
It could be that Burnett simply doesn't want to talk about faith issues right now and is avoiding the subject, especially in the wake of more painful developments in his private life. That's his business.
Then again, it could be that he is in a fighting mood and wants to lash out at the religious right and other obvious targets. That's his business, too.
I still think it's strange to write about this man's long and complicated career and leave God out of it. I predict the angels and the demons show up when listeners crank up these CDs on their stereos and iPods.
Turn it up. Don't avoid the obvious.