Yesterday, on my music list, I referred to T Bone Burnett as one of my icons and heroes. This is the story behind that statement.
T Bone is a musician, songwriter, and music producer. He released several albums in the 1970s and 1980s, but after 1992, he took a break from recording until 2006. During the 14 years that he wasn't recording his own music, he was working as a record producer. One of his latest efforts was producing Raising Sand, the album that featured the collaboration of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He also was the musical adviser /producer for such films as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain, and Walk the Line.
His music is hard to categorize. Some of it is outright rock 'n' roll, some of it is country, some of it is blues, some of it is bluegrass, some of it fuses elements of all four. He is a Christian, and some of his early lyrics are explicitly religious, but his later stuff tends to be less preachy in the religious sense. Many of his songs have social or political commentary. Others express the angst of relationship. He has a sharp wit and a satirical mind, and his lyrics contain clever plays on words. If you like pointed critiques of our plastic contemporary culture, T Bone is the man for you. Because his music isn't what anyone would describe as commercial, his own records have never been bestsellers. But he has a devoted following of fans, and he is widely, widely respected. He has been called the conscience of the music industry.
None of this explains why T Bone means so much to me or how he came to be a pivotal role model in my life. That happened when I met him briefly 22 years ago. In 1986, my husband Michael (who was just a non-romantic friend at the time) and I were part of a support group for Chicago Christian artists. And in May of that year, the group held a retreat in Wisconsin. T Bone was one of our two guest speakers, and then he and his band were going to play at our Saturday night dance.
One piece of important background to this tale is that when I was in my 20s, I felt guilty about my desire to be a writer. I thought that I should be doing more overt Christian service. But in his talk, T Bone told us, "Generosity is the hallmark of the artist." He went on to say, "An artist can't be like this," as he crossed his arms as a barrier in front of himself. Then he added, "Instead, an artist must be like this," as he opened his arms wide. In other words, all that artists and writers have to give you is themselves, and of that, they must give generously. And if you know T Bone's work at all, you know that he lives out that principle. That man bleeds in his songs.
If for nothing more than that, I would owe T Bone the world for being the first person to tell me that being a writer wasn't a selfish thing at all. But there is more to this story.
As I mentioned, Michael and I were not romantically involved at the time. Instead, I was deeply infatuated with someone I'll call Don, another guy from our writers' group and someone who also went to my church. Don had a lot of issues with relationship. He wanted it but was afraid of it too, so he sent out extremely confusing mixed signals. At that time in my life, I was drawn to cold men because I was trying to prove I was lovable by winning over someone impossible. Clearly, my crush on Don was a disaster waiting to happen, and the weekend of the retreat was when that disaster struck. Late Saturday afternoon, he told me he wasn't at all interested in me romantically. I was devastated. That night I went to the dance party and tried to put on a brave face. But it was so painful to be in the same room and to know that Don didn't want anything to do with me. It hurt to watch him dance with other people and act as though he were having a wildly good time.
At one point, I went outside to cry. T Bone was leaning against the wall, taking a cigarette break. He took one look at me and asked what was wrong. I don't recall what or how much I told him, but I do remember that he was very gentle and kind. Remember that this man was not only our celebrity guest; he was also providing the music for the party. Performing can be exhausting, and he was on his break, yet he made the effort to reach out instead of ignoring this strange chick who was crying. When we went back inside to the party, he asked me to dance. It was just one dance, but I was the only woman he danced with that night, and since I wasn't part of the "in crowd," I think other people were bemused by the unexpected pairing. (Plus, I'm sure we looked ridiculous. T Bone is 6'4" tall, while I'm 5'2".)
A week or so later, the couple who organized the retreat spoke to him on the phone, just to check in, and he asked how I was doing. When they told me that, I was so touched that he remembered.
That's why T Bone Burnett is a hero to me--not just because of his artistic integrity, which I admire and desire to emulate more than I can say, but also because of his humanity. He is generous in his art, and he is generous with his spirit. His words helped me give myself permission to to write. His actions made me believe that he lived according to his own principles.
It isn't very often that someone changes your life during such a brief encounter. When they do, you remember it forever.