Name 'em, and T Bone Burnett probably has worked with 'em.
In the game of rock 'n' roll word association, it's more of a challenge to come up with big-name musicians who haven't collaborated with singer/songwriter/producer Burnett.
Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison and Bono Vox of U2 have recorded or performed with the lanky 6-foot-5 Texan. But Burnett can attest that a glittering resume has done little to bring him fame and riches.
"That's fine with me, especially the famous part," Burnett, 41, said in a phone interview from his home in Ft. Worth. "1 wouldn't mind having a few more shekels, but the whole fame idea, it's nothing. It's a complete specter. I don't need it or want it at all."
Maintaining his popularity on a cult level, Burnett has remained obscure despite his critically acclaimed songwriting and production work. His last album, 1988's The Talking Animals, was knocked by some critics, who called it preachy. But Burnett consistently has found his work rewarded with critical approval.
Burnett's most recent credits have been of the production variety: Elvis Costello's Spike and Burnett's girlfriend Sam Phillips' The Indescribable Wow both feature Burnett as a producer, and he'll soon be working on his third Tonio K release.
Burnett's next big project is to start a production company that will allow young bands to cut an album. His first planned recording will be next year with songwriter Billy Swan. But Burnett is getting the itch to return to what he finds most rewarding about music.
"I'm just now having to make the time to write and make an album myself," he said. "I'm going to start really in earnest in July. If I'm lucky, it will sound like a Muddy Waters record, but I'm afraid that's asking too much."
Burnett's own records perhaps have brought him the most recognition, favorable and otherwise. After the release of the Proof Through the Night LP, he was named songwriter of the year in 1983 in the Rolling Stone critics poll. But the release of The Talking Animals was regarded by that same clique as a disappointment.
Often the target was "The Image," a song sung in four languages that uses common misconceptions as a metaphor for global misunderstanding.
"Oh, yeah, that upset people a lot," Burnett said, still baffled. "I love that song. People thought it was pretentious and an unfunny joke. It wasn't a joke to me."
Another Burnett song that got a reaction, in this case puzzlement, was over "Hefner and Disney," which compares the two men and their kingdoms.
"I think they're doing the same thing, they're damaging the society in the same way,' Burnett said. "If someone would say that's sacrilegious, that's exactly the point. We're talking about sovereignty over ourselves. It seems like no experience today is valid unless there is some scientist or artist to validate it before us."
Burnett started in music in 1964 as a producer with visions of becoming the next Burt Bacharach. He produced local acts and in 1968 was the man behind the board as well as drums ("I just sort of beat them") for The Legendary Stardust Cowboys' psychotic hit "Paralyzed."
He continued to produce regional records, and in 1972 he recorded his own album, J. Henry Burnett and the B-52 Band. In 1975, he was invited to join the ever-changing entourage that was Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.
After playing with the Alpha Band in the late '70s, he focused on solo albums. Truth Decay, released in 1980, was the first in a string of acclaimed records.
Burnett's career as a producer in the '80s began speeding up, and he worked on albums by the BoDeans, Los Lobos and Peter Case. In 1985, he toured and recorded a single with Elvis Costello as the Coward Brothers, a mock country duo that claims they were ripped off by everyone including the Beatles.
After producing the rerecording of In Dreams for Roy Orbison in 1987, Burnett was hired to produce Orbison's Cinemax special. Featuring everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits, the show was representative of Orbison's return to his old form. That made Orbison's death last year much harder to take, Burnett said.
"The really sad thing about it is it took two or three years for him to turn the inertia in this direction, and it's so sad that when he had done that, he died," Burnett said. "I believe that at the end of making his [Mystery Girl] record he was at full force again. In one sense, it's great that he was at full force when he died."
Like U2, T Bone Burnett has been lionized by Christian rock fans because of his Christian beliefs.