T-Bone Burnett and the Americana Film Soundtrack

On the Friday before spring break, I had the pleasure of seeing the Vanderbilt Core Choir perform their home concert that began their week long tour to Florida.  The front end of the program was a typical classical repertoire, featuring works from Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.  Via short sets focusing on international pieces and original compositions by choir members and friends, there was a gradual transition into what I found to be an absolutely stunning performance of Americana songs at the tail end of the program.  There was a complete change in atmosphere of the concert, and it was in no way related to the quality of the music going up for some strange reason.  The performance level was stunning throughout; in the roots set, it was just like the music stopped being a performance and began to be a warm and welcoming conversation.  It focused strongly on spirituals, arrangements of songs by The Wailin’ Jennys to highlight some of the ensemble’s remarkable sopranos and altos, and a selection for the male vocalists to shine on that happens to be one of my current favorite songs.    This was an adapted arrangement of Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac’s recording of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” for the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis (you can listen to a recording of the choir’s men performing the selection above).  The film follows a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a fictional folk artist in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s struggling to make it by, providing a dreary reminder to the audience that for every Bob Dylan or Joan Baez success that came from this vibrant folk movement there were countless careers that failed to start.  Again and again in this dismal setting, the film’s music shines through, punctuated by performances from Oscar Isaac in his titular role.  The man that put that soundtrack together was T-Bone Burnett.

Image from Performing Songwriter

T-Bone Burnett, given name Joseph, is a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers.  The first such collaboration occurred with the 1998 existentialist comedy The Big Lebowski , where Burnett is credited as “Music Archivist.”  His duties in this role were to track down unique recordings spanning multiple genres and secure their rights.  His most significant contribution in this role was choosing and securing rights to Townes Van Zandt’s recording of The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” to play over the film’s closing credits.

In 2003 Burnett produced the soundtrack for Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, a folk soundtrack featuring tracks from Alison Krauss, Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus, Sacred Harp Singers, and Jack White.  While White, famous for his garage rock work with The White Stripes, may seem out of place on first look with the rest of the performers on the soundtrack, he is actually a large proponent of roots revival, helping career resurrections for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson in the new millennium.  The Cold Mountain soundtrack received numerous awards, receiving Grammy and Oscar nominations and winning best soundtrack awards from BAFTA and the World Soundtrack Academy.

For the Coen Brothers’ 2004 The Ladykillers, T-Bone produced a soundtrack focused around gospel music and featured artists such as bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, The Soul Stirrers, Swan Silvertones, and Rose Stone.  Into this mix of gospel music, Burnett added hip hop elements with tracks from Nappy Roots and Little Brother.

T-Bone produced and wrote songs for the 2010 soundtrack to Crazy Heart.  The soundtrack heavily featured Ryan Bingham, principally on the film’s lead song “The Weary Kind.”  Performances from the film’s actors Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall are on the soundtrack, as well as tracks from Townes Van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, among others.  “The Weary Kind” won the Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Best Original Song, the Grammy for Best Song Written For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media, and the album as a holistic work won the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack.

Burnett’s most famous soundtrack is undoubtedly that for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?  The soundtrack was considered by the directors to be such an integral part of the film that it was actually recorded before principal photography began.  It features dirges, gospel songs, bluegrass, blues, country, and folk music, and readily makes it apparent how those genre lines are in reality quite blurred.  Standout tracks include Alison Krauss singing “Down to the River to Pray;” Krauss and Gillian Welch performing “I’ll Fly Away;” Ralph Stanley singing “O Death;” and the Soggy Bottom Boys performing the film’s signature song, Dick Burnett’s “Man of Constant Sorrow,” featuring lead vocals from Dan Tyminski.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? won Grammys in 2002 for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album, Country Album Of The Year, and took home the all-genre Album Of The Year Award.  The Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance went to Ralph Stanley’s recording of “O Death,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” took home the Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.  These were stunning genre and all-around awards for a soundtrack to win; this album was simply that magnificent.

While Inside Llewyn Davis likely will not surpass the O Brother soundtrack in terms of acclaim, it is one of Burnett’s finest soundtrack works to date.  Besides “Fare Thee Well,” Oscar Isaac provides great performances throughout the film on songs such as “Green, Green Rocky Road” and “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Justin Timberlake, working as a supporting actor in the film, does great in the transition from smooth, sexy R&B to folk music (I would love to hear a whole folk album from him).  Chris Thile and Punch Brothers provide instrumentals and vocals for several tracks on the soundtrack, although they are never a lead artist.  Adam Driver, recently rumored to be the casting choice for the villain in the upcoming Star Wars VII, teams with JT and Isaac on the upbeat and fun “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an original composition for the film that is played during one of the movie’s few scenes that projects hope about Llewyn Davis’s musical career prospects.  In a movie about the music, the soundtrack is a perfect fit.

Over these soundtracks and more,T-Bone Burnett has shown a strong appreciation for and effort to include American roots music in American cinema.  It doesn’t matter if that music would be considered country, folk, spirituals, dirges, bluegrass, or blues; he recognizes it as an integral part of American cultural history, and is preserving and propagating it via his soundtrack production.  While soundtrack music fame is usually reserved for those composers famous for their scoring, such as John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman.  The Americana soundtracks of T-Bone Burnett often exist alongside a scored composition, but it is the roots music that stands out and is remembered.  It is simply a transcendent sound.  Even though his soundtracks are usually not his own compositions like those mentioned, Burnett should be recognized for his work in film alongside these other names, especially because of his direct role in popularizing and preserving roots music.