Q&A: T Bone Burnett On Inside Llewyn Davis, Gillian Welch’s Influence And Modern Technology

Written by November 1st, 2013 at 12:00 am

T-Bone Burnett
T Bone Burnett  has spent the last decade arranging, organizing, and repositioning traditional American music for the masses. On the morning of September 30th, Burnett was chipper and eager to talk, showing no signs of fatigue from the previous night’s three-hour folk music extravaganza at Town Hall. Burnett had produced the concert, titled Another Day, Another Time, which presented a loose and lively definition of folk music with its far reaching cast of performers. The show’s occasion was Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers latest movie, which is inspired by the life and music of Dave Van Ronk.

The latest collaboration between the Coens and Burnett takes place in the Greenwich Village of the very early 1960′s, when a small, insular group of dedicated folkies like Van Ronk discovered and re-imagined converging forms of traditional American music of the previous half-century. Burnett’s show at Town Hall highlighted and contextualized the music from the movie, weaving together a contemporary narrative of American folk music that illuminated the music’s stubborn persistence and continued prominence in the 21st century. We spoke with Burnett about putting together Another Day, Another Time, the relationship between music and technology, folk music’s purpose in the 21st century, and why the internet is destroying the United States of America.

Were there any moments from the LLewyn show that really stuck out to you?

God, so many. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” it started with that and that was pretty great. All of these artists have this extraordinary ability to redefine the music of the last century to be real in this century. The music has been living for thousands of years, these songs have been around since Plato and they all go way back into our culture in one form or another. There’s a sense that this music is permanently reusable, recyclable.

Review: Inside The Star-Studded Inside Llewyn Davis Concert

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and then followed it with “I Hear Them All,” a song written in 2006, which then segued back into “This Land Is Your Land.” That progression spoke volumes.

That was the point that kept getting made over and over, like with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” followed by “Rye Whiskey,” and then “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Done: the story’s told right there.

When the younger acts were playing, there was a palpable energy in the crowd that came from this sense of not knowing whether a song was eighty years old or three years old.

Yes, yes, that really was the idea.

Is that sense of timelessness the main point you were trying to get across with this show?

When you’re putting a show together you really discover what it is, and I found that the show has to do with the fact that the United States still has slavery, we’ve just outsourced it in the same way that we’ve outsourced all the rest of our labor all around the world: people making shirts for us, making oil for us. If we were paying the people making oil for us a living wage, we’d be paying $200 a gallon for oil. So “500 Miles” and all of these songs, they’re all coming out of the Civil War. So much of that was the white culture trying to deal with the reality of slavery, with how people that were brought here not necessarily by their will, people that were just sort of moved here, how these people were going to assimilate. How are they going to be integrated into the culture, how are we all going to overcome the wounds of this? There was all of this stuff in that music, and it’s all being updated.

We’re no longer living in “This Land Is Your Land,” it’s a bigger world than what Woody Guthrie was living in, it’s more like this world Is your world, right? At the end of the day, that’s what the show’s about, this world is your world. We have to have conscience. Art, at its best, will create conscience, so that’s part of what we’re trying to do, create conscience in ourselves, in our music, through our music. For me, that was the show. That, and the initial impulse was to bring together the best of these young musicians who are reinventing this music again, this thousand year-old music, for the information age.

After having just seen Inside Llewyn Davis, do you think these types of younger artists are having the same sorts of struggles with notions of authenticity and integrity that Llewyn Davis (character loosely based on Dave Van Ronk) is battling in the movie?

I think actually, that these young artists, the Milk Carton Kids, and I’d also put Gillian and David in there as really the progenitors of this new guard of artists, I feel that they’ve all overcome that in some way, I feel like they’ve all overcome that. You know why? Self-promotion is a horrible thing. As soon as an artist self promotes he ceases to become an artist, he becomes a salesman. Gillian Welch is a committed artist, she’s a lifer. She’s the real thing, right? She doesn’t have time to get on the internet, you know. You can’t do that. Picasso on the internet?

Llewyn Davis would have a hard time updating his artist Facebook page.

Here’s the reality: the arts have been sacrificed on the altar of technological advancement. If 20 years ago, somebody came to any artist in the world and said listen, there’s this extraordinary new technology, you’re going to be able to send your stuff out everywhere, you, you can get information from everywhere, there are only two things you have to give up: your privacy and your royalties. Everybody would have said are you kidding, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

I’ve been accused of being a luddite for saying these things. Very few people have made a tremendous amount of money off of communications, and the way they’ve done it is controlling what went out through the pipes that they were selling. They were able to preach a message of information wants to be free, et cetera, talking half of what Stewart Brand said. So they preached this and they spread their message and they got incredibly rich, and part of that had to do with this idea of “just give us your stuff for for free, and we’ll make a lot of money.” It’s been a straight-up con. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner that we’re not going to be able to get out of, because the rest of the world is not going to put up with our adventurism anymore.

So now we’re in our own surveillance system, the reality what we have now is so much worse than any dystopian nightmare of my childhood, really. When I was a kid they would tell us they’re going to plant chips into your body and be able to follow you everywhere and know everything you’re doing. Well they didn’t have to implant it in our bodies, we hold it right in our hands (Burnett reaches for his iPhone), you know? So, where were we? Oh, we were talking about these young artists.

Right, how they’ve dealing with all these things: commerce and art, the idea of selling-out.

They have a century, now, to look back on, the century of the self. And when you look back on it you can see what’s good and bad. I think these kids are so much smarter and so much better. The Milk Carton Kids, the touch, the amount of sensitivity they have. They don’t use any force at all, it’s all sensitivity, but it’s a deep, strong sensitivity, it’s not a hollow kind of sensitivity, it’s a solid touch.

But really, the internet as we call it now is junk, and it’s destroying our country, it really is. It’s not going to destroy the rest of the world, they’re not going to let it destroy the rest of the world, they’ll let it destroy us. That’s what folk music is. That’s what it is. This land is your land, this world is your world.

  • Tim Ryland

    Uh … something lost in the transcription, maybe?

  • Helen Balcony

    This makes no sense. I’m a drummer who works with an artist who is “the real thing, a lifer”. She uses the internet, everyone does. Even lifers aren’t creating 24 hours a day. As a consumer AND player of music, I can categorically state that the internet has increased my pleasure and appreciation exponentially. I am able to access lyrics and music for almost any song I want to learn, if I don’t have a recording I can listen to it on YouTube, and there are tutorials on different techniques there as well. Not to even mention the reams and reams of information, biographical and critical detail on every musician you could think of, searchable… Also, I notice T Bone HAS an iphone. Why doesn’t he just bin it if he doesn’t like it?
    As a teenager I used to have to take a train for a couple of hours to my nearest sheet music store and just hope in hell what I wanted was available and affordable. I know what I prefer!

  • Lefort

    Ummm….here’s a comment: There’s nothing authentic at all about The
    Milk Carton Copiers. Mr. Burnett has lost his ever-loving mind. The
    Milk Cartoners’ whole schtick has been stolen from the far more talented
    and original Gillian and David (emphasis on the latter, down to the
    identical aping of Rawlings’ signature guitar sound). Until they
    develop one scintilla of originality, and stop copying verbatim their
    betters, they are denied in extremis.

  • auramac

    The Times they are- a- Changing.” Again.

  • Nametag Scott

    T-Bone is the shit.

  • Rod Downburst Johnson

    Lefort: I hear you, but… if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. At least they have good taste.

  • Clinton Collins

    The only thing I really agree on is we still have slavery in the world that serves us. Like those who produce the $500 iPhone.

  • Danny Gonzalez

    While slavery is rampant in the world it’s true, I take exception with Mr. Burnett’s recital of a common logical fallacy: The ‘false cause’, defined below.

    “Presuming that a real or perceived relationship between things means that
    one is the cause of the other.
    Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of
    pirates have been decreasing; thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.”

    Gasoline made by workers paid a living wage would most assuredly not cost “$200 a gallon”.

    As rampant as slavery is in the world the true factor in the price we pay for goods is not the wages paid to the workers who make them, it is in the profits paid to the corporate hierarchy. These profits (and the salaries paid to the corporate exec’s and owners) have grown in outlandish and ridiculous fashion over the last five decades. Almost all the money we pay for corporation produced goods are earmarked for these multi-million dollar ‘earners’.

    A living wage does affect counter prices but the amounts are much less than most people might think. Elizabeth Warren explained this recently:

    “During my Senate campaign, I ate a number 11 at McDonald’s many, many
    times a week, and I know the price on that one, $7.19. According to the
    data on the analysis of what would happen if we raised the minimum wage
    to $10.10 over three years, the price increase on that item would be
    about $0.04. So instead of being $7.19, it would be $7.23. Are you
    telling me that’s unsustainable?”

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/04/13/1201068/-This-week-in-the-War-on-Workers-Raising-the-minimum-wage-would-increase-prices-by-how-much

    It’s my hope that Mr. Burnett see’s this and reads what he can find on the subject. I’m one of his biggest fans and would love to meet him one day but, I just can’t let that quote stand. Impressionable people might believfe it.

  • Rand Bishop

    This is a bunch of pedantic spewing from a guy who is beginning to resemble the ivory tower he lives in. Every “artist” by nature, has to be part self-promoter. Gillian Welch’s dust-bowl woman costume in ’93 was just as contrived as Robert Zimmerman’s hobo/poet guise was in ’62. T Bone has some nerve appointing himself the arbiter of what is art and who should be worthy of the label artist. Perhaps he thinks we didn’t notice that he spent much of last year working on his wife’s prime-time network soap opera. I saw “Inside Llewen Davis” at the Austin Film Fest. The lead character came off as just another moderately talented, self-destructive dick. It was like looking in the mirror — at myself in the ’70s.

  • Rod Downburst Johnson

    I’m not seeing it. How has he appointed himself anything?

    I guess I don’t see what your beef is precisely. He works on “Nashville,” which seems like a natural fit (I didn’t know he was married to Callie Khouri until you mentioned it, and I’ve never seen the show, but that doesn’t seem like some kind of black mark). He did music for a movie that you didn’t like the main character of–that doesn’t really seem to say much about him either. Basically it seems to come down to you not liking him or things he’s associated with, which is fine but it’s not much of a criticism. So what’s the problem, specifically?

  • Rand Bishop

    Did you read the interview? T Bone proclaims that as soon as an “artist” becomes a self-promoter they are no longer an “artist.” He says the Internet, which has provided thousands of “artists” the opportunity to find a vast audience, is ruining everything. Callie Khouri is a brilliant screenwriter and director — but “Nashville” hardly qualifies as art. It is what it is — trashy, nighttime, network drama. I’m not saying that in itself is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m saying that the guy who coordinated music on such lowbrow entertainment shouldn’t lecture the songwriters of the world as to what is art and what isn’t. Finally, I didn’t say I didn’t like the character of Llewen Davis, or that I didn’t care for the movie. However, I was there for the Q&A and T Bone acted as if the character was some kind of hero who stood for some idyllic musical purity — which is absolute bunk. The Coens depicted Davis as a cruel, self-posessed, self-destructive poser. And, quite frankly, a poser with only average talent.

  • Rod Downburst Johnson

    Good points, but not much of that is discernible in your original comment, which is why I asked.

  • Michael Romkey

    I think Tbone is a brilliant producer. I don’t understand what he’s talking about above, but if that kind of thinking helps make good records and soundtracks, so be it. More power to him.

    I was talking to a friend in Nashville yesterday who has worked on some of these projects, and happened to ask him about Burnett. (I’m doing some bush-league producing and am interested in his approach). He said the man is so in fashion that he commands a really, really big number, which I won’t repeat, to sign onto projects.

    I’m sorry that he comes off above as just another millionaire show-biz type throwing stones at people in business (as if he isn’t) getting rich off of the labor of the common man (which he is, because I can tell you a lot of the people on these recordings, below the big names, aren’t living in mansions), while “exploiting” the world (that would be people who buy CDs and go to movies). In the preceding sentence, “exploiting” meaning giving work to people who want it in order to provide a product or service to people who want to buy it, for a price they can afford.

    It’s really hard to be truly righteous, but surprisingly easy to be a hypocritical ass.

    Like others we can all name, the man is a great artist. That doesn’t mean he or some of the others know anything about economics or politics.

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