The movies have been very good to T Bone Burnett, but he’s scratching his record-making itch again.
The lanky Texas-born musician-producer was barracked at the Village Recorder in West Los Angeles this week, completing work on the soundtrack for director James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” due in November from 20th Century Fox.
Burnett tweaked a guitar solo on Tyler Hilton’s rambunctious version of Elvis Presley’s “Milk Cow Blues” and unspooled a concert sequence in which Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and L.A. country singer Waylon Payne make very credible musical impressions as Cash, his wife June Carter Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, respectively.
“Joaquin was relentless in his search for J.R. Cash,” says Burnett, who adds that the actor, who cut his own vocals for the film, “stretched his voice a good octave lower” during rehearsals to capture Cash’s profound sound.
Hollywood has been keeping Burnett busy since he won four Grammys in 2002 for his work on the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and its documentary spinoff “Down From the Mountain.” He collected an Oscar nomination for “The Scarlet Tide,” a song he co-wrote with Elvis Costello for the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack.
Beyond “Walk the Line,” Burnett has created music for two other forthcoming features. He scored and wrote three songs for Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knockin’,” the Sony Pictures Classics release screening at Cannes next month. He has collaborated again with Costello — whose Burnett-produced 1986 classic “King of America” gets an expanded rerelease by Rhino on Tuesday (April 26) — on “Sulfur to Sugar Cane,” a song to be sung by Sean Penn in Steve Zaillian’s remake of “All the King’s Men,” due in December from Columbia.
But Burnett — who hasn’t issued an album under his own name since “Criminal Under My Own Hat” in 1992 — is stepping out with a new release, “The True False Identity,” which his Sony imprint DMZ will issue in August. A two-CD career retrospective, “20/20,” will be issued by DMZ/Legacy around the same time.
He says he began a six-month writing siege for the new album in the summer. Then he took the material into the studio, and the free-for-all began. “We’ve cut 15 to 18 things so far — 80% of it was improvised in the studio,” Burnett says. “Whatever would strike us that day, we’d take it and stick it together … I would go through pages of things, rapping, ad-libbing.” He compares the process to Miles Davis’ intuitive methods during his “Jack Johnson” era.
“The True False Identity” is a nearly complete departure for Burnett. The sound of such new songs as “Palestine, Texas,” “Seven Times Hotter Than Fire” and “Zombieland” is raw, loose, percussive (he employs three drummers) and wailing (thanks largely to guitarist Marc Ribot’s unbridled playing).
“It is very primal,” Burnett says of his liberating new work. “It’s emancipation. Everyone who works in the record business is a victim of Stockholm syndrome, and I’ve finally been deprogrammed … We’re doing this to supply some liberty in the horrible environment we’re living in.”