T Bone Burnett talks 'O Brother' anniversary and why 'we never have overcome the Civil War'

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
T Bone Burnett in 2009. (Photo: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
T Bone Burnett in 2009. (Photo: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released on Dec. 22, 2000, T Bone Burnett had no idea just how massive the Coen Brothers film’s folk music soundtrack, which he produced, would become. Now, two decades later and in a fraught election year, the Texas-raised musician/songwriter/record producer has just released the Words + Music Audible Original The Confederacy: Truth and Reconciliation — an ambitious, 90-minute performance that is part VH1 Storytellers, part Ted Talk and part university lecture, examining the history of white supremacy and systematic oppression of Black people in America. It’s certainly an interesting time for Burnett to look back at O Brother, which was set in the 1930s in the rural South and explored various racial themes.

“Starting with a chain-gang song and then going to the corrupt, racist politician getting ridden out of town on a rail … well, we’ve fulfilled the cycle of the movie in the last 20 years. … I think the most apropos-for-2020 part of the movie was when Homer Stokes got put on that rail. And I’m looking forward to that happening in the beginning of a new year,” Burnett tells Yahoo Entertainment with a chuckle, referring to the climactic scene when on-the-lam bluegrass singers the Soggy Bottom Boys sneak into a campaign gala for gubernatorial candidate (and secret Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard) Homer Stokes, and quickly turn the crowd against him by performing their radio hit “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

“It all started with a chain-gang song,” notes Burnett, recalling the iconic O Brother opening scene’s “Po’ Lazarus,” a traditional work song that he describes as an “early hip-hop” track. “Those chain gangs, once slavery was overturned, the penal system became the new method of forced labor throughout the country, especially in the South. I mean, it’s impossible not to deal with those themes, really, when you’re talking about the South in the ’30s. … I went immediately to the Lomax archives when I knew we needed a chain-gang song, because I knew he had been down there recording in the prisons. It was the kind of heroic song that we were looking for.”

“Po’ Lazarus” was actually recorded in 1959 by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins at the Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi and originally appeared on the Bad Man Ballads installment of Lomax’s Southern Journey LP series, credited to “James Carter and the Prisoners.” Forty-one years later, when it was licensed for the surprise smash O Brother soundtrack, Burnett, Lomax’s daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis and the Alan Lomax Archive’s licensing director Don Fleming were determined to track down the song’s real-life hero — Mississippi sharecropper, inmate and lead vocalist on the field recording, James Carter — to make sure he received both his proper credit and royalties.

“The Lomax foundation, in a really wonderful act of responsibility, hired a private detective to locate James Carter — and they found him,” Burnett recalls. “He had married a storefront preacher [Rosie Lee Carter of the Holy Temple Church of God] in Chicago, and [Chairetakis and Fleming] showed up at his door with a check; I think the first check was $20,000. … He hadn’t even remembered recording the song! But he had the No. 1 record in the nation, suddenly. And who even knows what his crime originally was — maybe like stealing two chickens from the mayor.”

Carter died in 2003 at age 77, but a year and a half before his death, he had a chance to celebrate his musical legacy with Burnett, when O Brother became one of only four soundtracks to ever win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year (the other three being The Music From Peter Gunn, Saturday Night Fever and The Bodyguard). “We brought him out to Los Angeles for the Grammys, which was a great thrill,” Burnett reminisces. “He came out, and he was in a wheelchair. We brought his whole family out for the ceremony. It was really wonderful. It was mind-blowing, really, because to me that chain gang that sang ‘Po’ Lazarus,’ I thought it had happened in another century or another land; it seemed so removed from where I grew up and what I grew up with. But he was still alive and kicking, and he was lovely. … I told him what a beautiful job he did, what a beautiful piece of music that was, told him how grateful we were that he gave us an extraordinary beginning to the movie. That song set a standard for where we would have to go. We couldn’t let him down after that.”

T Bone Burnett, left, and James Carter, right, backstage after the movie soundtrack "O Brother, Where Art Thou" won Album of the Year at  Grammy Awards. . (Photo: Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
T Bone Burnett, left, and James Carter, right, backstage after the movie soundtrack "O Brother, Where Art Thou" won Album of the Year at Grammy Awards. . (Photo: Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Another favorite O Brother track of Burnett’s is Chris Thomas King’s rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” originally written and recorded by Delta blues singer/multi-instrumentalist Skip James in the 1920s. “To me, Skip James is in many ways one of the greatest bluesmen,” says the producer. “He came back from Europe after World War I with this Gypsy tuning — it’s a D minor or E minor tuning — and he had the most haunting sound and most haunting melodies of all of the blues. I think Skip James knew he was a genius, and I think he wore it very well. That’s still a very apropos and poignant and important song. It’s about the Depression, and it’s also about not having enough.”

But, of course, one of the most pivotal O Brother scenes is the KKK rally at which the evil politician Stokes is de-hooded. That moment chillingly features another traditional American folk song, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s a cappella recording of “O Death,” which earned Stanley a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the same 2002 ceremony attended by Carter. “That is a song I’d been carrying around since I was a teenager; it’s incredible,” says Burnett. “And as we looked for what song would go with [the KKK scene], one of the lines I love in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is: ‘We found a wizard, but not the wizard we were looking for.’ It’s a line that goes right by, but it’s beautiful — another beautiful through-line. As we were looking for the Grand Dragon of the Klan, it had to be something about death, something taunting to our heroes who were trying to escape.”

The O Brother soundtrack features both Black and white artists of the past and present, although it’s “Man of Constant Sorrow,” recorded for the film by Dan Tyminski, a member of Alison Krauss’s band Union Station, that became its biggest hit. (It also won a Grammy, for Best Country Collaboration.) Another notable scene is when the Soggy Bottom Boys (played by George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake) show up with Black musician Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King) to perform that song at a radio broadcast tower, and they are told the station doesn’t record “n***** songs.” It’s a seeming commentary on the long history of cultural appropriation of Black music by white artists, which Burnett says is “a big subject to deal with, and an important and worthy subject to deal with,” bringing the subject back to the current day and tying it in with The Confederacy: Truth and Reconciliation. “It’s been interesting to see the way, for instance, Eminem has been accepted by the African American community. I haven’t heard people say that he was appropriating Black culture — even though he was — but he more assimilated it, I think. I think that’s one of the things that’s happening in the country today. I think that the generations that were born after the civil rights advances of the mid-1920s to mid-20th century have a very different attitude towards all of this, and a much more open, peaceful relationship among all people.”

Burnett recalls that when he was in Mississippi working on O Brother, “one of our buses got all the windows shot out one night by the Ku Klux Klan, or by white supremacists at any rate, because, you know, it was ‘New York Jews making fun of us!’ But that’s just something that happened. We moved on, and we didn’t dwell on it; that seemed more like an extreme fringe-group action at the time. Now it’s getting more and more prevalent in the political climate of the last several years.” Burnett recorded his Words + Music Audible Original “only probably three, three or four months ago,” but he’d actually been writing “versions of it” for years. While the project took on a more national focus after the 2016 election, he was originally inspired when he and his wife, screenwriter/producer/director Callie Khouri, moved from L.A. to Tennessee to work on Khouri’s TV series Nashville — and he experienced a “culture shock” of sorts in his new “heavily siloed” Nashville neighborhood.

“I live on the west side of Nashville, in what’s called Old Nashville, and I can live my whole life here and never see a person of color,” says Burnett. “The most interesting to me was that in Los Angeles you can go into the bank or the dry cleaners or the grocery store, and you’re running into maybe 15 different ethnicities, and everyone’s incredibly respectful of each other, and I would even say open with each other. And when I came [to Nashville], I found that there was a lot of distrust among what people call ‘races,’ and I was uncomfortable. … Everyone can be courtly and polite and all those things, but every once in a while, somebody would say something [racist] out of the clear blue that was shocking to me and would stop me in my tracks. So I just started digging into that new reality. I’ve been living [in Nashville] now for several years, so I’m beginning to understand it, but it led to a whole different point of view. It all caught me by surprise. It became clear to me that we never have overcome the Civil War.”

But Burnett, who just announced the formation of a new supergroup called Dopamine with the Roots’ Black Thought, Elvis Costello, DJ Premier, Nathaniel Rateliff and Cassandra Wilson, stresses, “I’m not down on Nashville at all. … I’m optimistic and hopeful that we are finally growing past this white supremacist mindset that we grew up in. … And I think Nashville is incredibly well positioned to lead Tennessee, the South and the United States out of the darkness of the 19th century — which is why I started writing this [The Confederacy: Truth and Reconciliation] piece.”

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