- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

NEW YORK — Even if you don’t know T Bone Burnett, you’ve probably heard his work. In a varied career spanning decades, Mr. Burnett has helmed the hit soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” trained the voices of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for “Walk the Line” and produced a myriad of musicians, from Elvis Costello to Roy Orbison.

Going back to Bob Dylan’s fabled 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue, with which he toured, Mr. Burnett’s fingerprints have been sprinkled across three decades of American music like notes picked up and down a guitar’s fretboard.

But while his work behind the scenes has made him one of the most in-demand producers, his own music has largely taken a back seat. It’s been 14 years since his last album, 1992’s “The Criminal Under My Own Hat.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Burnett will return with both the new “The True False Identity” and a two-disc retrospective, “Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett.”

“At this point, I’m starting over,” says the 58-year-old songsmith and guitarist. “I’m starting from scratch.”

In person, Mr. Burnett, tall, wiry, clad in black and wearing his trademark black shades, appears invigorated by his new direction and refreshed to be outside of the studio.

“I grew up in the studio,” he says. “I bought a studio when I was 17. I’ve hidden from the world — from my own life — in the studio. A few times, I’ve ventured out into the public, nervously.”

Mr. Burnett submerged himself after “Criminal,” feeling uncompelled to write music or even touch his guitar. What initially got him going again was composing and playing music for a 1996 production of Sam Shepard’s play “Tooth of Crime.”

“I wanted to break from the record business because it had reached a stagnant point,” he says. “I started looking for other ways to get music heard than through the traditional record business, and the most interesting one I found was working with Sam Shepard on ‘Tooth of Crime’ in New York.”

Mr. Burnett was emboldened by a new fondness for performing live music, and his collaboration with Mr. Shepard led directly to one with Ethan and Joel Coen, who spoke to him at the play’s premiere.

He has since worked with the directing brothers on the music for “The Big Lebowski,” “The Ladykillers,” and the old-timey “O Brother,” which turned into a cultural phenomenon, selling millions and spawning a lucrative tour and the 2000 documentary “Down from the Mountain.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Burnett was writing his own music again, beginning with a simple but beautiful eight-bar blues that would later become the track “There Would Be Hell to Pay” on the new album. But it would be years before anything concrete emerged, and Mr. Burnett’s efforts were instead concentrated on producing other artists, which he says “was like treading water for me.”

“I would start to record (the new songs) and then I would stop,” he says. “I would have things set — I was going to put out the ‘Tooth of Crime’ stuff, but then stopped. Something was always stopping me.

“Finally — let me put it this way — nothing was stopping me anymore.”

“The True False Identity” — which Mr. Burnett calls a “black comedy record” — is a startling, off-kilter mix of blues, gospel and spoken-word. It creates its own feverish, absurd world, as Mr. Burnett sings of places like “Palestine Texas” and “Zombieland” (the album’s first two tracks).

“Where I want to go with my work and with my life is that place that’s between heaven and earth. It’s neither; it’s ether,” Mr. Burnett says. “That’s the place I feel comfortable — that’s where I feel alive.”

Mr. Burnett likes to view things in historical context, and he believes the ‘60s were the culmination of a revolution that began after World War II and ended around 1975. Following that, Mr. Burnett says, has been a “classic, Maoist counterrevolution” that he thinks is now winding down.

Much on “Identity” suggests that perspective. One song declares, “this is fear country,” and another, “Blinded by The Darkness,” wonders about the wisdom of injecting “the concept of sin” into the Constitution.

Mr. Burnett says he isn’t a political person, only that this era has been too uptight. One lyric on “Seven Times Hotter than Fire” goes: “The world is not flat, the world is not round/ The world is square, but it won’t bring me down.”

The album’s highlight, “Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce),” is a murderous slow burn, shattered intermittently by a descending guitar riff. But Mr. Burnett says that underneath the gloomy bizarreness of the song and the entire album “is a kind of mirth at the predicament — a love of the predicament, of the preposterousness of it all.”

Mr. Costello, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Mr. Burnett’s, believes the album is well worth the wait.

“He took his time — there’s no hurry in this life. He made a record when he was ready to make a record and look at all the good things he’s done in between,” Mr. Costello says. “I think this record is the epitome of him as an artist in its uniqueness and completely uncompromising nature musically and lyrically.”

Mr. Burnett, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and has lived in Los Angeles for years, now intends to scale back his production work, including DMZ Records, the label he formed with the Coen brothers in 2002.

Instead, he believes he’s finally, as he says, a freestanding artist.

“I feel like I have freedom now,” he says. “That’s something I’ve worked toward my whole life. I would say all of my work in life was the search for freedom.”

“I’ve believed for a long time that if you cooperate with the universe, it will cooperate with you.”

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