By Brian Wise.
T Bone Burnett was given Bob Dylan’s blessing to record the New Basement Tapes.
T Bone Burnett is indeed a busy man. If I had not guessed that fact from the list of his recent production credits then I soon found out when I spoke to him over the phone to chat about Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes his imagining of some ‘lost’ Dylan lyrics, given to him by Bob himself with the task of setting them to music.
As we chatted, Burnett occasionally gave directions to his wife Callie Khouri, creator and executive producer of the TV series Nashville, as they drove somewhere near Franklin, Tennessee. There were a few long pauses when they were temporarily lost and Burnett multi-tasked as navigator and also interviewee.
Burnett was the music supervisor for the first Nashville series and his wider reputation these days seems to be based on his film and TV work. He also recently produced the music for the first season of the fantastic True Detective series, staring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
Having established his film reputation with O Brother Where Art Thou? Burnett has now worked on a dozen or so more films including Crazy Heart, Walk The Line and last year’s acclaimed Inside Llewyn Davis.
Burnett’s recent album credits include Elton John, Diana Krall, Lisa Marie Presley, Steve Earle and his old buddy Elvis Costello (on National Ransom). However, his own recent solo work has been restricted to Tooth Of Crime (2008), only his second studio album for 16 years.
Burnett’s movie and TV star is in the ascendency but amongst all those projects he managed to find time to heed the call of his friend and former employer Bob Dylan. (Burnett was a guitarist on the infamous Rolling Thunder tour).
“Bob’s publisher contacted me and said he had found a box of lyrics from 1967 that were from The Basement Tapes time and would I like to do something with them,” explains Burnett. “Of course! To get a box of Dylan lyrics from any time would be great but from that particular time it was particularly intriguing because it was such a turning point in his life.”
At the time he wrote the lyrics Dylan had been recovering from his famous motorcycle ‘accident’ and had withdrawn from the public to Big Pink in Woodstock. By the time he started recording what was to become The Basement tapes with The Band he was 26 years old and determined to change his image as well as his life. Released at the end of 1967 John Wesley Harding was a stark contrast to its two immediate predecessors Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.
Though there had been bootlegs of the 1967 recording sessions, most notably Great White Wonder, it was not until 1975, eight years after the original recording sessions, that The Basement Tapes was finally released as a 24-track double album.
As it turns out that was only part of the story. During those 1967 casual recording sessions Dylan and The Band had actually recorded more than 130 songs and Bob had been writing so feverishly that he still had a batch of lyrics left over when he moved on to other projects.
“I wouldn’t say he discarded them,” says Burnett of the lyrics he was given. “I’ve got books and books of lyrics that I’ve never finished that I go back and look at occasionally. If I’m writing a song and I’m looking for something I don’t have, I need an inspiration or I need something. I go back and look through them. There’s a ton of great stuff that I’ve got that I’ve never even come close to finishing.
“I’ve taken that as this is more of what this is from Bob. The lyrics were great. They weren’t anything we had to try to make sound good. They just sounded good. As soon as someone started singing any of these lyrics an alchemy took place and a song was born.
“One of the interesting things about the project was to see how many different songs were born of the same lyric. Because several of the songs, two or three or even four people wrote versions of.”
“He [Dylan] gave them to me with no instructions whatsoever,” says Burnett of the lyrics, “and then I acted as I acted. I didn’t give anyone any instructions either, the same way because Bob and I come from a very similar place – we both really come out of the Beat Generation and I appreciate his aesthetic and his ethics. I think I subscribe to a lot of the same philosophies about making art that he does certainly.
“I didn’t want to interject myself into the process any more than he did. I think he had the idea. I think he liked the idea of people finishing off these lyrics for him.
“I think we trust each other,” continues Burnett. “I do think he trusts me. I think he trust that it’s going to be good besides everything else: that whatever we did with them was going to be good. It was going sound good and be good.”
For the Lost On The River, Burnett assembled an eclectic and mainly younger group of musicians: Elvis Costello, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes).
“The choices were really pretty easy looking back on it,” reflects Burnett on how he went about choosing the cast of players. “Once the criteria were set then the choices were pretty clear. I’d already been working with Rhiannon and Elvis and Marcus on Inside Llewyn Davis.
“The process was already started and then we’re looking for collaborative people. The first priority was that someone had to be collaborative. That he wouldn’t come in and try to take over. The second was that they could sing like crazy. The third was that they would play and write like crazy and that they could play several different instruments.
“Even though we didn’t want to impersonate The Band and Dylan’s recordings, we wanted to be true to the spirit of them, to the devil-may-care approach to making music.”
As the recording got under way the musicians chose lyrics or paired off to work on them. There are two versions of the title track, one written by Costello alone and the other in collaboration with Giddens and Mumford. Elsewhere Mumford and Goldsmith collaborate. In the end, apart from the twenty songs recorded for the project there are enough left over for another complete album.
“It just sort of happened,” says Burnett. “The idea was just if you hear it play it. We were going to record everything. Elvis came in with ten or fifteen songs. Taylor came in with fifteen songs. Jim James came in with six. Then some people started writing in the studio. It was all just great.”
“We were sent 16 songs initially, just type written,” explains Burnett. “Then the box showed up and there was a whole group of other songs in the box and some of the really great ones too. There were some beautiful songs that Bob and his publisher hadn’t identified yet until they looked deeper into it. There’s probably another 10 or 15 songs in there, as a matter of fact.”
Burnett says that he recorded the finished songs in a ‘basement’ studio on reel-to-reel tape, not necessarily because he wanted to capture the ambience of the original recordings but merely because he prefers to still work in analogue. The only outside musicians to be included were drummer Jay Bellerose and two other members of Dawes, Zach Dawes and Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith.
Apart from the album that has recently been released there is also a documentary about the project, Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, directed by Sam Jones and already shown on American television.
“It’s not really about the whole process,” says Burnett of the film. “The process was a pretty amazing process where we recorded 45 songs in 12 days. It was a miraculous, crazy process that you can never get in documentaries. There is a documentary about the whole phenomenon of the Basement Tapes and a little bit about what we did in the studio. It’s pretty interesting.”
The success of the film Inside Lllewyn Davis produced a celebratory concert at the New York Town Hall that featured artists such as Joan Baez, Patti Smith and others from the folk and contemporary music scenes. (Marcus Mumford and Rhiannon Giddens were also there).
“I would like nothing better,” responds Burnett when I ask if there will be a similar concert for Lost On The River. “ Everybody’s so busy though. It’s going to be hard to make happen. Perhaps we could at some point. Let’s just see how it goes through the first part of next year. Maybe so.”
Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes is available via EMI.