july 2009

Photo by Mary Keating Bruton

'Nobody Loved His Life More Than Stephen'

Stephen Bruton

November 7, 1948-May 9, 2009

Stephen Bruton, a legend of the Austin music scene, a songwriter, guitarist, producer, actor, raconteur and philosopher of note, and one of the most gracious and generous musicians of his time, lost what all his friends are describing as a "valiant" two-year battle with cancer at age 60. He died in Los Angeles, on May 9, at the home of his friend, the producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom he was a mentor when Burnett was a young, ambitious musician in his native Fort Worth, where Bruton also grew up after his family moved there from Delaware when he was two years old. Bruton had been in Los Angeles working with Burnett on music for the forthcoming Jeff Bridges film, Crazy Heart, and in March had put the finishing touches on Starlight and Stone, a new album by his long-time friend Kris Kristofferson, in whose band Bruton had played for 40 years, predating Kristofferson's emergence in the early '70s outlaw scene.

""I'm deeply grateful he got to complete his work on the film," Burnett told the Los Angeles Times. "It meant a tremendous amount for him to get it finished. In the last 72 hours things just started shutting down. Up until yesterday I thought he was going to kick it. I think everybody thought he would kick it quickly because he was Stephen Bruton. We all thought he was invincible."

Artists as varied as Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hal Ketchum, Storyville and Chris Smither had benefited from Bruton's productions, and the list of artists who have recorded his songs would in and of itself constitute a career for most—in addition to Kristofferson, his songs have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Hal Ketchum, The Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride. His studio credits as a guitarist are equally varied and multitudinous, but of special note was his invaluable contribution to Steve Goodman's debut album, which included the classic "City of New Orleans."

As an actor he had parts in movies and TV series. His most recent screen role was in Man Of The House with Tommy Lee Jones; other big screen credits include Convoy, Songwriter, Heaven's Gate, Miss Congeniality, Sweet Thing and The Alamo. His TV resume includes the movie A Seduction In Travis County, the miniseries Amerika and the Andy Griffith-led NBC staple, Matlock.

After his family moved to Texas, Bruton grew up surrounded by music. Thanks to his jazz drummer father, who ran a record store, the young Bruton absorbed everything from blues, country, jazz and pop to classical. "He always said, if you're going to listen to music, listen to the best music," Bruton said.

Bruton credited his years in Fort Worth for shaping his musical sensibilities, and was quick to point out in interviews how the vitality of the live music there was a lesson in and of itself, in a town often overlooked as a Texas hot spot. "The thing about Fort Worth is that there was no scene there," Bruton once told an interviewer. "No one was looking at Fort Worth, believe me. But there was great music there and always has been. It's always been black guys and white guys playing together. There was this great exchange of music."

A bluegrass prodigy, Bruton was winning banjo contests before he was a teenager. In his late teens, he took up the guitar, and began exploring country, blues, rock and other styles. After graduating from Texas Christian University, he joined Kristofferson's band.

"Nobody loved his life more than Stephen," Kristofferson told the Los Angeles Times. "He loved watching what he called 'babies on parade' at the airports: little kids stumbling forward with their first steps, barely keeping their feet under them, faces shining with joy and amazement at the discovery of this new talent.

In addition to lending his artistry to others' music, Bruton recorded five tasty solo albums, mostly intermingling blues and country, and showing off an effective singing voice that reflected his gentle, energetic personality.

Stephen Bruton is survived by his mother, a brother and his estranged wife, Mary.

(reprinted from Pro Sound News, July 1999)
Stephen Bruton: 'Get just enough information on there to where it really pops out.'

As Always, Stephen Bruton

By David McGee

That sound you hear on Stephen Bruton's ingratiating new solo album is exactly what its title indicates: Nothing But the Truth. Truth in the lyrics, which tend toward dead-on insights regarding the ways of the heart and the ways of the world that shape who we become as days turn into weeks and weeks into years. Truth in Bruton's desert-dry vocals, which have an engaging authority that demands attention be paid. Truth in the no-frills production, with each instrument needing to be there, and no instrument there that would clutter the edgy blues, country and rock 'n' roll styles Bruton fashions to propel his philosophical musings.

Anyone who's followed Bruton since he emerged from his native Fort Worth, Texas, in the early '70s as a young whippersnapper playing amazing guitar in Kris Kristofferson's band knows that straightforwardness and economy of style are his hallmarks—as a musical artist, as a producer, as a man. Those qualities are in abundant evidence on Nothing But the Truth (a Bruton co-production with the estimable Stephen Barber) and another recent Bruton production, the ninth and best long-player of blues veteran Chris Smither's admirable career, Drive You Home Again.

Having worked with some outstanding producers in his day, Bruton has learned a few important lessons that he has distilled into a couple of succinct aphorisms. To wit: Frame the Song, and Serve the Song.

"With Kristofferson, it was years and years of playing the same song every night, with a minimal musical approach, even though we had lots of players," Bruton explained recently from his home in Austin. "But I had to make what I did fresh every night. Kris used to say, 'You never play the same thing once!' There's different arguments for that. You could say maybe I was drinkin' too much that time. But I was trying to keep it fresh. I call it framing a song. When I got into producing I started working on the production being the frame for the song. Fortunately I was able to work with a lot of great producers before I ever started producing. All of a sudden I started seeing what they did to get the results they got. It didn't make sense to me when I was on the other side of the glass. But when I was on the control room side of the glass, I suddenly realized what was going on.

"On the productions I've done you don't have the money to spend a lot of time in the studio. So I do a lot of pre-production. Whether it's Storyville or Chris Smither, we get down here, we work for a couple of weeks, or at least a week getting things together and going over songs. I don't mess with lyrics, unless there's something I hear that doesn't make any sense. Fortunately everybody I've worked is pretty smart and they're much more diligent about their lyrics than I am about mine. But I make sure the production serves the song; and Stephen Barber feels the same way. He and I are of the same approach, which is a minimal approach. Get just enough information on there to where it really pops out. If you add anything else, it's going to take away from it. Even though it might be pleasing to the ear, it's just going to take away from the whole thing."

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Stephen Bruton performs the title song from his 1999 album, Nothing But the Truth

Bruton's approach—or rather the integrity of it—is most apparent on Smither's album. In concert Smither performs with his acoustic guitar, his voice and one foot stomping out unerring tempos. How to broaden out that singular, idiosyncratic style without losing its essence is a challenge for any producer. Bruton met the challenge by fashioning a "transparent" production.

"You've gotta add drums and bass so sparse, so sparingly, that for him and for the song they're almost invisible," he explained. "They have to really propel, they have to add. You can add other things in there, little bells and whistles, but they can't be first and foremost. He has got to be first and foremost. It's gotta be like a bunch of ghosts around him."

On Drive You Home Again Smither's presence, as always, is strong, but is also supported by a tension that is as riveting as it is haunting, not unlike the ambiance common to the late Tim Hardin's albums. (Fittingly, Smither covers a Hardin song, "Don't Make Promises," on Drive You Home Again.)

"It is," Bruton agreed. "It's this magnifying glass that goes in and out of focus. All of a sudden you're not aware of it and it gets very clear as you hear drums or maybe a little guitar back there. But just briefly. I played it for [musicians] Chris Maresh and Brannen Temple, who are basically straight ahead jazz guys. And man, you shoulda seen these guys driving to a gig listening to Chris Smither with his guitar. I said, 'I need some help, fellas. Here's what my job is.' I played it for them and said, 'I want your thoughts.' So Brannen said, 'He's got really good time, so why don't you mike his foot and I'll play percussion off his foot. His foot will be the bass drum and I'll do percussion.' So we did that. We used upright bass, fretless bass, and we added some stuff. But the whole thing was based around being invisible. In other words, if it was a one-man show, there would be this scrim hung up behind him and then every once in awhile you'd see these shadowy figures sit down and play a little something odd. You never knew when they were coming, but they never got in the way either. You knew you were aware of their presence, but only that."

Asked about producers who have influenced his own work behind the board, Bruton answered with a quick checklist: Mark Goldenberg, Dave McNair, Don Was—especially Don Was, who, said Bruton, "doesn't put any restrictions on the musicians; he lets you play to your strengths. You feel like you're playing with him rather than for him. And that's something I've always tried to instill in everybody that comes into my sessions: we're here together. I need you guys as bad as you need the gig. So my record wasn't my record; it was the record of Stephen Barber, Brannen Temple, Yoggie, Riley Osbourn—all those guys who played on that record had just as much say-so about what was going on. And I needed that. Everybody needs that. I want every one of my productions and every one of my albums to be greater than the sum of their parts. That's magic. I've heard horror stories about producers intimidating everybody, and that's horseshit. Those guys don't know what they're doing if they're doing it that way. They really don't. I've heard stories you would not believe. And if I was a musician on one of those sessions I'd go punch the sumbitch in the nose. Walk out. Ain't no way you're putting me through that."

As always, nothing but the truth. As always, close to the bone. As always, Stephen Bruton.

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One of Stephen Bruton's finest moments, "Getting Over You," a beautiful performance (Don Was on bass)

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