T Bone Burnett’s Still “Chasing Down What Sound Is” with Unintentional New LP ‘The Other Side’

When you’re young, says 76-year-old singer/songwriter T Bone Burnett, everything in life is a mystery. As you get older, things get clearer and simpler. Nevertheless, for Burnett, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Brandi Carlile throughout his illustrious career, even at a young age he says he was “audio-oriented.” He knew early on that he loved sound more than anything. More than painting, more than mathematics. That much was clear.

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“Then the rest of it,” says Burnett, who is set to release his latest LP The Other Side on Friday (April 19), “is just chasing down what sound is. That’s been my whole life.” Sound, not as a certainty, but as a guide.

A Life in Sound

For Burnett, loving sound feels akin to what he thinks a fish might feel in water. “It’s just where he is,” the musician says. But by living a life in sound, Burnett says, he has learned one thing above all else—making and playing music is roughly 90% listening. When your ears and heart are open, the words, the melodies, the secrets even, come your way. That’s exactly what happened to the artist with his new LP. It just happened. “I had no intention of making an album,” he says. “It just happened to me. And I’m glad it did. I’m so grateful for this record. I love this record.”

Gratitude is a keyword in Burnett’s life these days. Just as he’s grateful for the music and the life he’s lived, he says, he’s grateful he “didn’t end up being a bitter, grumpy old man.” For how easy it can be to grow callous, rigid, closed. Nonmusical. Rigidity is art’s enemy. For Burnett, who has garnered 13 Grammys producing albums for some of the biggest artists in the business as well as for his work on a number of film scores such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart, it’s the things “in between” he cares about—what he calls the “brackish water.” He explains: “Where the river meets the ocean and the water is neither saltwater or freshwater. It’s a blend of that. It’s not one thing or another.”

“The Dusk and the Dawn”

Burnett knows full well how we live in a binary culture today—“It’s easy to divide life into binary factions,” he says. But for him that’s cultural and intellectual death. “Life is not actually binary,” he says. “There’s night and there’s day. But there’s also dusk and dawn. So, the thing I’m interested in [when it comes to] American music is the dusk and the dawn.” He goes on to explain the roots of American music: In the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies were fortified against the British by the Atlantic oceanside. But to the West, there was vulnerability. So, Benjamin Franklin hired Scot-Irish fighters to guard the Appalachian Mountains. Thus came the folk music we know today from the region. In addition, with the slave trade came the influx of African traditions to the South. With those came two of the country’s most important exports: music and blended cultures.

“[Music] is my connection to the world,” Burnett says. “Especially now, I feel very ‘unstuck in time,’ as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. I don’t feel a part of any of it. And yet I feel close to all of it.” When you’ve lived for nearly eight decades, you learn a thing or two. At least, Burnett has learned a thing or two. And what you learn is not fact but feeling. “It’s both and neither,” he says, speaking about the kind of art he likes. “There’s something that touches eternity in it. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something that isn’t in time. That isn’t trend, that isn’t trending. It doesn’t have to do with popularity or those things. I’m not really interested in mass culture because it’s so manipulated. I’m interested in things that grow out of the ground.”

Songs, he says, play a major part in that because music, “is the most profound communication between people.” Words can get in the way of tone, sound, real meaning. They obfuscate as they try to elucidate. At best, they are expressions, not explanations. But too often they shroud a more important tonal baseline. In their attempts at precision, they can just as easily be perversion or degradation when it comes to true meaning. “I’m looking for that thing—that in between night and day,” he says. Words, like moments, are important. But what’s more important is how they’re strung together, how they blend together. How they harmonize.

Burnett says he used to have this one nightmare. It occurred after he started reading about Ivan Pavlov, the famous scientist who rang the bell that made his dog drool. But Pavlov also experimented with electronic programming. This led Burnett to his nightmare, where people were lined up in a church and their right hands cut off, replaced by mechanical hands. He says he’d wake up in a cold sweat, terrified. This created the impulse, he says, to push against mechanical modernity. He wants no part of that dystopia—one, he realized, was upon us when he walked into a coffee shop to see everyone on their phones: “They didn’t have to cut our hands off, they just put [the mechanisms] in our hands,” he says.

A Lifetime of Listening

So, he works in music, that eternal human communication. “I’ve been a listener my whole life,” he says. “I have to say, with no modesty, false or otherwise, I’m one of the leading listeners in the world today.” A leading listener and not an ornery man—there seems to be wisdom there. When you listen, melodies and lyrics can just appear. The Other Side is testament to that. “It was almost automatic writing,” he says of the record. But where does it all come from? We may not know for sure, yet there remains a “particle from which everything emanates,” Burnett assures. “It comes from some grain of, can we say, expression that you could call love.”

One example from the new album is the song “Everything and Nothing,” in which Burnett sums up life’s paradoxes, singing with such artful touch: Everybody wants to know the truth but nobody wants to hear it / everybody has to face the end but nobody wants to get near it / everybody wants peace but nobody wants to surrender / everyone lives in the past but nobody seems to remember. Succinctly, he shows a numinous, curious, delicate mastery on The Other Side, an album he says he made with his heart, not his mind. 

Burnett became inspired by music seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show just as much as he did falling for jazz and banjo music as a kid. Since then, he’s contributed to the great American pastiche as much as anyone. Why? For the love of it. “We can never explain it,” he says. “But what we can do is express it. Because it’s all an expression. Reality is an expression. The Earth is an expression. The word we use for it is ‘love.’ Well, in the English language, anyway.”

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Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Americana Music

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