An exploration of a musical polyglot.
Former Chicago Sun-Times music columnist and No Depression senior editor Sachs (American Country: Bluegrass, Honky-Tonk, and Crossover Sounds, 2012) views his subject as a low-profile yet indispensable innovator within a vital American idiom. As he writes, “the title ‘record producer’ can contain [Burnett] no more than ‘film director’ could contain Orson Welles.” The privacy-minded Burnett, while friendly with the author, declined to participate in a project that Sachs describes as a “critical appreciation of his extensive body of work as an artist and producer,” so he relies on research, earlier discussions, and interviews with collaborators. Burnett was born in 1948 in Fort Worth, Texas, raised by “happy-go-lucky types” who encouraged his passions. Upon graduating high school, he purchased a crude recording studio and helped make a “lost classic” LP of underground rock, confirming his “ambition and restless creativity.” After moving to Los Angeles, he was soon drafted into Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue; though he disliked the spotlight, the touring experience “instilled deep community values in Burnett.” He also became devoted to countercultural Christianity, explored in three 1970s albums with the Alpha Band, which won acclaim but not sales. Simultaneously, Burnett developed a reputation among aspiring musicians as a bold, exacting producer, which led to success in the 1980s for artists like Los Lobos, Peter Case, and the BoDeans. Burnett pursued collaborative relationships with iconoclasts like Sam Shepard and Elvis Costello, but periodic solo efforts underperformed. As he told Sachs about one acclaimed effort, “I was writing about self-deception and deceiving myself while I was doing it.” Burnett then transformed the popularity of film soundtracks through his work with the Coen Brothers, adding depth (and profitability) to their “surrealistic vision.” Sachs writes clearly and confidently about music production and the industry, and he ably captures the personalities and sometimes-contentious viewpoints of Burnett and his circle. However, the focus on Burnett’s role as a top-shelf producer makes the perspective feel slightly narrow.
Intriguing, slightly impersonal catalog of a soulful mastermind’s accomplishments.