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T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

By Lloyd Sachs

University of Texas Press, 278 pages, $26.95

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh, October 2016

Find it on Amazon
T Bone Burnett, one of the most successful modern music producers, doesn't like to call what he does a career. Instead, he chooses to see it as a 'pursuit,' hence the title to his biography, "A Life in Pursuit." Lloyd Sachs' book is an overview of Burnett's various accomplishments, which have included overseeing some of today's most outstanding albums. He'll likely best be remembered as the man behind the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a collection that is credited by many for jumpstarting the current Americana music movement. However, he's also worked with many other A-list artists, including Robert Plant and Elton John, and was instrumental in furthering the careers of new artists, most notably Counting Crows and Los Lobos.

Sachs spends full chapters detailing Burnett's various production efforts. For those that have followed Burnett's work over the years, it's an educational way to go behind the scenes during many of his pivotal productions. Chapters are broken down into the differing roles he's fulfilled. For instance, his work with Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall is gathered together in a chapter labeled "Jazz Man," whereas his collaboration with B.B. King is titled "Blues Man."

What's missing from this book - and it's no fault of Sachs - is much participation from Burnett. Although Sachs received Burnett's approval to write the book, many - or more likely most - of Burnett's quotes throughout the book are attributed to other articles, from other publications. Instead of culling data from other writers' works, the book would have been more cohesive and consistent if Sachs had been availed the opportunity to interview Burnett about each of his most important projects and then use these direct quotes. Instead, Sachs valiantly attempts to paint an original portrait using other artist's visions.

One gets the sense after reading this book that Burnett never truly intentioned to become known as a famous and successful record producer. He's released multiple solo albums, which have mostly received critical acclaim. Burnett is a smart and witty songwriter, with a spiritual and socially conscious vision that can only come through so far whenever he's producing other performers.

But for whatever reason, Burnett's solo music has never quite caught on with the public as have his behind the scenes projects. And that's a shame. Even a Los Angeles opening slot on a bill that also included The Clash and The Who back in the early '80s couldn't break Burnett through to a wider audience.

Burnett has always been a great believer in the value of art, which is one reason why he has been an ardently vocal critic of the current musical digital age. Sachs relays just how much Burnett despises the low audio quality of current day MP3s. He also makes it clear that Burnett hates what the internet has done to musicians' ability to earn a living from selling their music. This anti-internet rhetoric has not always sat well with others in the music community. But then again, Burnett has always been a bit of a nonconformist. Granted, a highly successful nonconformist, but a nonconformist nonetheless.

T Bone Burnett fanatics will eat this book up because we still know so little about Burnett the artist. Perhaps one day a publisher will convince Burnett to write his autobiography. Then we'll, hopefully, see the real T Bone Burnett at last.