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Stephen Bruton: Hero and Friend

Posted by mcorcoran on May 9, 2013

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(Originally published in May 2007. Stephen Bruton succumbed to cancer two years later.)

In his home studio in Barton Hills, Stephen Bruton has a picture on a music stand of him playing guitar with Kris Kristofferson for the first time, in 1971 at the Golden Bear in San Rafael, Calif. Bruton was 20 and Kristofferson was on a Jimmy Webb-like songwriting tear that included “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” in quick succession. The two had met in Fort Worth a couple years earlier and when a spot opened in his band, Kristofferson asked Bruton if he was interested in playing the guitar. “Man, that’s all I’m interested in,” Bruton answered back.

Over the past 36 years, Bruton has spent 17 years in the employ of Kristofferson, who’s also one of his closest friends. So when Freescale Semiconductor Inc. wanted to re-create the fast-moving show Bruton put together for the World Congress Information Technology conference a year ago, with a few big names sprinkled in, one of the first people Bruton called was his old boss. Bonnie Raittbrutonkrisl and Delbert McClinton – two acts Bruton backed when he wasn’t working with Kristofferson – also said “just tell us when to show up.”

And then Bruton got sick. He was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils five months ago, and went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments from March 6 to April 17. He’s been home getting his strength back and on Monday began rehearsing with the band, which includes the great rhythm section of Brannen Temple and Yoggie Musgrove, plus B-3 great Ian McLagan on keyboards.

Bruton’s situation could’ve been worse. Bruton’s manager, Ken Kushnick, credits early detection for Bruton’s positive prognosis. Bruton’s wife, Mary, had a sore throat and she went to look at it in the mirror to see what the problem was. But first she wanted to see what a healthy throat looked like. When her husband said “ahhh,” Mary saw redness and swelling. He went to the doctor the next day.

After the diagnosis and the timetable of treatment was laid out, Bruton decided, with a month of recuperating time, he could go on with the “Road To Austin” show.

“I’ve never had an experience with anything like this,” Bruton said, looking like a gaunt version of himself from Raitt’s “Thing Called Love” video. The upcoming show has lifted his spirits, even though he said he sometimes wishes the date was later, as he’s getting stronger every day.

bruton portraitimagesBut he’s excited about playing guitar again with his friends.

He met Raitt in 1971, when she opened a show for Kristofferson. The two became friends and stayed in touch. Bruton toured with Raitt in the early ’90s, but then came off the road to write songs, produce (“After Awhile” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “Gravity” by Alejandro Escovedo) and play his own gigs. At age 40, he became a first-time frontman.

“Kris was always so encouraging about my songwriting,” said Bruton, who co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album “Border Lord” and had his greatest writing thrill when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of “Getting Over You” on Willie’s great “Across the Borderline” LP.

Delbert McClinton and Bruton go back furthest of all, to the ’60s when a 16-year-old Stephen and his older brother Sumter were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. Their father, a drummer, owned the hippest record store in Fort Worth, and the Bruton brothers soaked up all that rhythm and blues. In McClinton, who would later teach John Lennon how to play blues harmonica, Bruton found a kindred musical spirit. As soon as Bruton came home after a Kristofferson tour, he’d join up with McClinton’s band.

“Kris always kept the band around when he was making a movie,” said Bruton, who also toured with Maria Muldaur during the “Midnight At the Oasis” mania. “He’d make his movies during the week and then we’d play concerts every weekend.”

Through his association with Kristofferson, Bruton has beefed up an acting resume, which includes that hilarious scene in “Songwriter,” when Bruton is seen shivering in his skivvies while an angry husband, played by Rip Torn, shoots a beer bottle off his head as punishment for catching Bruton’s character with his wife. Bruton’s screen work, including “Heaven’s Gate,” “The Alamo,” “Miss Congeniality” and the TV series “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip” (he played the bandleader, naturally), has led to some ribbing from friends. When Bruton was late for Resentments mate Jon Dee Graham’s wedding a few years ago, the ceremony was held up. “Someone turn on a movie camera and Bruton will be here in two minutes,” someone said and everyone laughed. The silver fox doth love his screen time.

But not like playing music. Kristofferson never thought of himself as an actor, but as a musician first and foremost, Bruton says. Same with Stephen.

“Touring with Kris was the greatest experience,” Bruton said of the songwriting giant, who used to joke (before he married current wife Lisa in 1983) that he’d kept his band together longer than any of his marriages. “I feel like we went through life together.”

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CRAZY FROM THE HEART: BRUTON’S SWAN SONG

(originally published in Jan. 2010)

It was 1960 in Fort Worth, and a couple of 12-year-old guys were in the T.H. Conn music store one Saturday afternoon – every Saturday afternoon – messing around with the various stringed instruments hanging from the walls. The shorter of the kids always went back to his favorite guitar, a beat-up Epiphone Texan acoustic, which had the sweetest tone he’d ever heard. Finally, he brought it over to owner Woods Moore, and they talked for a while, with Moore scratching his chin for a long time before agreeing to a deal.brutonyoung34870542_640

“Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” 10-time Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett recalled of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper.”

Nearly 50 years later, the lifelong friends have earned critical raves for their original film score to “Crazy Heart,” a little film with big Oscar buzz starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer with one good song – and one last chance – left in him.

“This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Burnett, who is one of the movie’s producers in addition to sharing music supervisor credit with Bruton. “When we won the L.A. Film Critics award, it was so sad for Stephen to not be there. This was really his film. I turned the music over to him.”

Austinite Bruton died at 60 in May at Burnett’s home in Los Angeles after a 21/2-year battle with throat cancer. Burnett and director Scott Cooper screened “Crazy Heart” for Bruton about two weeks before he died.

“We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that,” said Burnett, 62, who called early raves for “Crazy Heart,” which opened in Austin and 32 other cities Jan. 8, “the best of any movie I’ve ever worked on.”

Bruton’s older brother Sumter, who still runs the family’s 53-year-old record store in Fort Worth, Record Town, laughed when he recalled his brother’s tall friend from the ’60s.

“T-Bone lived in the only house with a swimming pool in the neighborhood,” Sumter Bruton said. “That’s how I met him.”

T-Bone Burnett

T-Bone Burnett

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early ’70s, Burnett and Stephen Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt before recording his first of five solo albums in 1993. Burnett cemented his reputation as a producer with the multiplatinum touch on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack in 2000 and then seven years later topped it with “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Burnett became a West Coast music biz honcho; Bruton settled into the pace of Barton Hills, where for 20 years he lived, wrote songs, produced records and dressed for gigs at the Saxon Pub.

“We’ve always stayed in touch,” Burnett said. “And when ‘Crazy Heart’ was a go, Stephen is the first person I called.”

Although Bruton had been diagnosed with cancer in early 2007, Burnett said the hiring of Bruton for “Crazy Heart” had nothing to do with trying to raise the spirits of a sick friend.

“Stephen was just the right person for the job,” Burnett said. “Through his experience, he knew more about who Bad Blake (the Jeff Bridges character) was than anyone else.”

Stephen Bruton and Jeff Bridges were inseparable on the set of "Crazy Heart."

Stephen Bruton and Jeff Bridges were inseparable on the set of “Crazy Heart.”

Before a song was written for the project, Burnett hosted five or six months of listening sessions at his Brentwood, Calif., house in 2008. Burnett, Bruton, Bridges and Cooper constructed a timeline of Blake’s life leading up to the time covered by the film, when he’s a 57-year-old alcoholic playing bowling alleys with pickup bands. Ryan Bingham, up for a Golden Globe on Sunday for best original song (“The Weary Kind”), also dropped in at times.

Bridges soaked in all the honky-tonk, blues, Western swing and Bob Dylan songs played during that prep time, just as his character would have growing up.

The sessions reminded Burnett of the hours he and Bruton would spend in Record Town, the store Bruton’s father, a jazz drummer, opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957.

“Back then you couldn’t order records unless you had a record store,” Burnett said. “So Stephen could get, like, old blues and bluegrass records from the Library of Congress that nobody else could get.” The teens would thumb through catalogs and then wait for records by Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf to arrive.

At night, the underage pair and their friend Delbert McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch sax great King Curtis and slipping in some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb.

“From my point of view, Stephen embodied the soul of Texas music,” Burnett said. “He went deep into what made it unique. I learned so much from him.”

Asked what was it about Fort Worth that made it special, Burnett recalled a scene from “The Last Picture Show,” when the main characters are sitting out by a desolate stock pond.

“The ground is gray and the water’s gray and the trees are gray, and the Ben Johnson character says, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?'” Burnett said. “(Fort Worth) didn’t seem like much to most people, but it was a magical place to us.”

It’s a town Bad Blake could’ve been from.

“Jeff (Bridges) looked to Stephen to keep him honest and believable at all times,” Bruton’s manager, Ken Kushnick, said. An Oscar favorite, Bridges is among those up for a Golden Globe award Sunday for best actor in a drama.

Estranged from his wife the last few months of his life, Bruton threw himself into the film, even making a few reality-heightening suggestions to Cooper during filming in Santa Fe, N.M. The Sparkletts bottle Bad Blake empties after a 300-mile nonstop drive – that touch came from Bruton. But his chief contribution was crafting such songs as “I Don’t Know,” “Somebody Else” and “Fallin’ & Flyin'” that would fit Blake’s career.

Songwriting royalties from the soundtrack album, which comes out Tuesday on New West, will go to Bruton’s estate, with proceeds split between Sumter Bruton and Bruton’s wife of 13 years, Mary.

“The challenge was to not just write good songs,” said Kushnick, “but to write songs that sounded like they’d been big hits 25 years ago. Playing so many years with Kris (Kristofferson) definitely served Stephen well” in that capacity.

Bruton’s résumé also included work with Billy Joe Shaver, another Bad Blake model, whose influence is heard in an a capella version of “Live Forever” by Robert Duvall, which plays during the credits, when “Crazy Heart” is “dedicated to the memory of Stephen Bruton.”

brutoncrazy1337256000000.cachedThe project, expected to garner several Oscar nominations next month , just seems to be blessed, Burnett said.

“It feels like all the events of the past couple years have been pulling towards this vortex,” he said.

Burnett said Bruton showed signs of improving health during his first couple of months in L.A.

“He had good doctors and he was putting some weight on and driving again,” Burnett said. “But in the last week, he took a turn for the worse.”

On the night of May 9, Bruton told his loved ones keeping a vigil at his bedside that he was going to sleep. He never woke up.

Leaning up against his bed was that old beat-up Epiphone Texan, his favorite guitar. It’s the one he plays in the score of “Crazy Heart.”

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