Songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett discusses the value of art in uncertain times

By Bliss Bowen

When idiosyncratic producer/songwriter T Bone Burnett delivered the keynote address at AmericanaFest in Nashville in September, it lit up blogs and Facebook. The speech was remarkable, as Burnett challenged artists to live up to their calling — to speak truth — and saluted the soul and “soft power” of American music.

Most strikingly, he underscored core points with references to neuroscience, string theory, binary code and the pope, while offering a sensibly reasoned analysis of why artists should not allow technocrats to snow them into commercially devaluing their own work.

Born Joseph Henry Burnett III and raised in Fort Worth, the deep-thinking Texan’s name has become a kind of shorthand for musical quality.

Since playing guitar in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and releasing several solo albums throughout the 1980s and early 2000s, Burnett has cultivated a dignified, musically informed sensibility and sound as producer of soundtracks (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Walk the Line,” “Cold Mountain,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and artists (ex-wife Sam Phillips, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Counting Crows, Los Lobos, Grace Potter, Brandi Carlile, Cassandra Wilson and Elvis Costello, to name a few).

He’s won 13 Grammy Awards, along with an Oscar and Golden Globe (both for Best Original Song, “The Weary Kind,” written with artist Ryan Bingham for “Crazy Heart”).

Small wonder pop culture scribe Lloyd Sachs recently honored Burnett with a biography, “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit.”

As part of the ongoing Live Talks L.A. event series, Burnett discusses “The Value of the Artist and the Value of Art” with concert/film producer and USC scholar Jonathan Taplin on Monday in Santa Monica.

In Burnett’s own words: “There is this sense that the technocrats are saying, ‘Look, we’re just going to go ahead and do this, and we’ll sort it all out later.’ As they did with the atom bomb. As artists, it is our responsibility to sort it out now.”

Burnett was referring to technology’s commoditization of music when he made that statement during his AmericanaFest address, whose broad scope also considered the impact of religion, monopolistic corporate power, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the imperative role of artists in advancing science as well as ethics and ideals.

It should be illuminating to hear his post-election perspectives on exceptionalism, national identity and reality, now
that we are governed by the official results of what he deemed a “psychedelic political season.”

T Bone Burnett speaks at 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30, in the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $30, or $95 including a VIP reception before the event. Visit livetalksla.org for more information.