A small segment of mainstream America might remember T Bone Burnett from the 2002 Grammy telecast, where this tall, mysterious fellow picked up the album-of-the-year award instead of U2 or OutKast. Burnett was the producer of the surprise winner, the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, a collection of blues, folk and bluegrass whose huge sales and acclaim helped reshape the pop landscape.
More serious music fans know that Burnett is a record producer for artists both prestigious and popular, including Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Spinal Tap, the Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Cassandra Wilson and Roy Orbison.
But to die-hard fans, Burnett is a treasured singer-songwriter whose series of albums and live shows between 1980 and 1992 represents a pinnacle of distinctive, literate, roots-informed rock.
That side of Burnett looked like a casualty of his success as a producer and movie-score writer (he followed "O Brother" with "Cold Mountain," was the executive music producer and score writer on "Walk the Line," and has a new set of projects lined up).
But here he was in a Burbank rehearsal studio this month, playing guitar and looming at the microphone in the dim light as esteemed guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer deity Jim Keltner led his band into the crackling groove of "Palestine Texas," a song from Burnett's first album in 14 years.
It climaxed with an insistent push as Burnett repeated an ominous warning: "This version of the world will not be here long, it is already gone, it is already gone" -- one of the album's many moments of concern about what he sees as the world's drift toward disaster.
"It all grew out of the idea of this conjuring music," Burnett said of his music after rehearsal. "It shape-shifts, it becomes different. It's getting into that place where every note becomes OK, there's no bad note you can hit because it's just another part of the moan. It's the idea of building this rumble until it's compelling."
The album, "The True False Identity," is just out on Burnett's own, Sony BMG-distributed DMZ label, and a tour is about to start. It reaches the 58-year-old Texan's adopted hometown of Los Angeles on June 20 for a concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, and he was charged up about hitting the road for the first time in a couple of decades.
"I'm looking forward to utterly checking out, which is what happens when you're on the road. All responsibility falls away," he said with a laugh during dinner at an old-school, Naugahyde-booth Burbank restaurant.
"I love the recording process. I love sound and being able to bend it with precision, or imprecision if you like.... The idea of going out and doing that live now is very exciting. There's some kind of focus I have now regarding playing live that I never had before.... Letting the laboratory of the studio go right to the big box."
Without the Orbison-style sunglasses he often wears in public, Burnett's button-like eyes give him a look of perpetual surprise -- appropriate for a musician of unusually diverse interests.
"He has a good take on things," says musician and artist Bob Neuwirth, one of his best friends since the mid-'70s, when Neuwirth pulled him into the theatrical/spiritual vortex of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. "He has a panoply of interests and influences. He's always hung out with artists of all kinds."
Burnett, whose given name is Joseph Henry Burnett, chose Johnny Mercer as his first musical role model, then focused on the blues and R&B; on the radio and in the clubs of Fort Worth, where he grew up. He started producing in the studios there, and friends such as singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton introduced him to folk music.
After Rolling Thunder, where he played guitar, he made three albums with the Alpha Band, and began his series of solo albums with "Truth Decay" in 1980. His 2006 return, though, isn't a simple matter of picking up where he left off with 1992's "The Criminal Under My Own Hat."
He's come back transformed, by, among other things, the end of his longtime marriage to singer-songwriter Sam Phillips (with whom he says he remains friends). Now, a primordial, trance-like, groove-conscious approach replaces the more literal and linear music of his past. The contrast is easy to document, because Burnett has also just released a two-CD career retrospective called "Twenty Twenty."
One key reason for the change was a period when Burnett mysteriously lost his way musically.
"I just couldn't tell why one note should be there and another shouldn't be," said Burnett. "I wasn't paralyzed, I was just free. I was happy to hear new things. I was completely wide open. So I wanted to allow myself to rediscover music from scratch. I felt it was an incredible gift to study music hard for 30 years and then just completely go back to nothing. I sort of had beginner's mind imposed on me, and now I'm just trying to stay there."
"I feel like he's gotten very serious as a vocalist and a lyric writer," said guitarist Ribot, who gave up some long-planned vacation time to tour with Burnett's band. "He had some kind of breakthrough.... I feel like T Bone on this record is trying to cross certain lines, to reach deep enough into some kind of American language to be able to speak to a lot of people...."
"I think his writing has matured, if anything," says Neuwirth, who co-wrote the song "Fear Country" for the album. "The songs are less comical in one way, in the broad sense, but there's just as much of a sense of humor for the discerning.... There's a thick vein of humor that runs through."
Burnett would agree with that, but again, it's not quite that simple.
"I don't want the songs to be jokey," he said. "Nevertheless they're all gags, so they've all got to work in some way other than the obvious thing that's being said. Something else has to be happening underneath, so it has to get in between that sense of comedy and tragedy.
"It's a dark-sounding record to be sure, but underneath it is a complete sense of mirth at even being able to make that sound, just for starters. And then the mirth of just being able to say what you want to."