Art as a Holy Pursuit: Inside T Bone Burnett’s Reverent Festival Lecture

All photos by Sherry Ferrante

At Mizner Amphitheater last night, T Bone Burnett, a giant both in the roots music industry and in his own imposing physicality, took a small but devoted throng on a multimedia journey through his life and, in a way, through at least a half-century of American songcraft. It easily ranks among the most adventurous programs in Festival of the Arts’ history.

Burnett, a multi-hyphenate singer, songwriter and producer, has been an integral influencer on artists ranging from Sam Shepard to Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers to Jeff Bridges. His career spans 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down, though as he told the receptive Boca audience in the wake of his 70th birthday in January, “I’ve finally found my superpower—hindsight.”

He expressed this superpower through poignant reflections on art’s power to lead, move and transform, through world events as well as his own history. Reading, nervously at first, from prepared remarks, Burnett acknowledged that the lecture format was new to him: “I’m just learning how to do this,” he said. “We’re gonna keep things loose tonight.”

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His shambolic delivery did little to dampen the power of his words. Reaching back all the way to Michelangelo defending his work from obscenity charges, the beginning of Burnett’s lecture felt like a strung-together series of individually brilliant, and highly quotable, philosophical nuggets about art’s place in the world: “Art is a holy pursuit.” “Risk is what separates the artist from the artisan.” “The reason the Iron Curtain fell is because Russian kids wanted Beatle records.”

He then transitioned into the video portion of the program, beginning with one of his earliest collaborative experiences, on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. This alone was worth the price of admission—Dylan wailing in whiteface, a demented carnival barker fronting the heaviest rock ‘n’ roll show of his career. Then we had Roy Orbison’s star-studded Cinemax special, “Black and White Night;” clips from Burnett’s film-music contributions to “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “Walk the Line” and others; and his more-recent contributions to the Dylan-penned “New Basement Tapes” and to Aretha Franklin’s rousing rendition of “Higher Ground” at the White House in 2015.

Burnett’s oeuvre is unimpeachable. Seeing it realized in this eclectic clip show and hearing his reflections on it helped foster, in me at least, a new appreciation for film music. I’ve been reviewing movies since high school, often focusing so disproportionately on script and direction that the intricacies of the soundtrack would receive short shrift. Discovering Burnett’s passionate drive for authenticity—practicing with Joaquin Phoenix for six months to transform him into Johnny Cash, developing an entire music backstory for Jeff Bridges’ dilapidated country singer in “Crazy Heart”—brought the art of the soundtrack into vivid clarity.

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Burnett concluded his presentation with a pair of mesmerizing solo songs on electric guitar: one from his original soundtrack of “Happy Trails,” a forthcoming musical about Roy Rogers; and “River of Love,” the magisterial opener from his 1986 solo record. He took a few questions from the audience afterward, and it’s clear that his purest fans wanted more of T Bone the singer-songwriter—more stories from his career in front of the mic rather than behind it, and more live music. The latter may have been wishful thinking; he doesn’t tour anymore aside from annual one-night stands at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

I, too, wanted more music. But his Boca presentation was perhaps more important than a concert, and it was certainly more comprehensive. It was, he called it, a “living memoir.” With 50 new songs in the can in the three hours of his own music recently recorded, it’s great to know that his story is still being told.