Producer-musician T Bone Burnett, firmly established as the guru of Americana music, was recruited by folk-rock icon John Mellencamp and suspense author Stephen King to make some sense out of their long-gestating Southern-gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. Burnett shaped it into a form that resulted in a stage production in Atlanta a year ago, and now it has been released as a conceptual album with music (sung by Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash and others) and dialogue (read by Matthew McConaughey, Samantha Mathis and Meg Ryan). We spoke to the Grammy-winning music man about collaborations, high art and peak production.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County was a long time in coming. John Mellencamp wrote the music. Stephen King wrote the story. What did you do?
They had a really great story. It came out of John’s life, and Stephen loved it. They decided to collaborate on a play with music, and since neither of them had been down that road before, they kept working on it, pushing and pulling it in different directions. They worked on it for 10 years, and by the time it got to me it was two hours and 45 minutes long. The first thing I did was to tell them to shorten it.
That’s why you get paid the big bucks. What other advice did you offer?
Like I said, the songs were written and recorded over a 10-year time period. There was no continuity. There no aural identity. So, my first job was to create a world of sound for these songs and characters to exist in. It was a compositional process. We were composing swamp-ghost music.
What where you working toward? Was it an album, or was it a stage musical?
The content they had was strong. They just asked me to come in and give it some form. We decided to do it as a radio play. We invited our friends in to record it. With the recording, the tone of the play was set. And that sound was transferred to the stage play.
You’ve worked with Mellencamp on his last two solo albums as well. Did you know that under his Wikipedia entry, this part of his career is labelled as the T Bone Burnett era?
[Laughs.] You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time. When I started, I certainly never dreamed of any listing in something called Wikipedia. All I wanted to do when I began was to make a good record and get a good review in The New York Times. So this is all so unexpected. I’ve had a long life in music and, apparently, I’m still employable.
I’m intrigued with guys like you and Joe Henry and Rick Rubin, who have worked with major artists late, sometimes very late, in their careers. Is there a special sort of drama involved with those kind of collaborations?
I believe there is. To work with someone who’s been in the wars, there’s a brotherhood. There’s kinship. These artists have been through different phases. I’ve been through it with John. I’ve been through it with Gregg Allman. I was talking with Patti Smith the other day. She was talking about those of us who have survived. There were a lot of us who didn’t.
I’m a fan of Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash, right up until he died. Can we say that Rubin gave Cash a third act?
You could. Rick Rubin did a very interesting thing with Johnny Cash. He told him to forget Nashville, to forget trends, to forget everything that’s ever been done. He told him to imagine what it’s like to be in his cabin in Arkansas, just sitting and playing the guitar. And he asked him what that sounded like. Somebody is there. You look for their essence.
Do you see your songwriting, your performing, your soundtrack work and your production as one thing? T Bone Burnett, the music man?
I was just in Italy for two weeks. There was a period of time when the whole culture and the whole society was in support of the arts. They wanted artists to venture to new places. They were asking artists to create a dimension between heaven and earth. They wanted them to paint the ceilings so a new dimension was created, and to get people’s heads into the heavens. I want to get my head into the heavens. So what I do, it’s all part of that.
Should we consider O Brother, Where Art Thou? as your Sistine Chapel? Is it your pinnacle achievement?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do anything better than that. Certainly the Coen brothers would have to be involved [laughs]. Actually their new film I worked on, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is set in Greenwich Village in 1961, right before the folk scene took off, just won the Grand Prix Award at Cannes. But you know, working with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss [for their Grammy-winning 2007 collaboration Raising Sand] was a pinnacle. All of these things, they’re all way above anything I imagined when I started. They’re all peaks to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.