By Michael Corcoran
One Saturday, every Saturday, in Fort Worth, 1960: A pair of 12-year-olds in the T.H. Conn music store 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 before agreeing to a deal. “Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” T Bone Burnett recalled in 2009 of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper.”
Five decades later, the lifelong friends earned critical raves for their original film score to Crazy Heart, which got Jeff Bridges his Oscar as a washed-up country singer with one good song left in him. “This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Burnett, who was 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.” Austin music mentor Bruton died at 60 in May 2009 at Burnett’s home in Los Angeles after a 2 1/2-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, whose wife Callie Khouri based the Nashville TV series character Deacon Clayborn on Bruton. A recovering alcoholic, Bruton made some really good records under his own name, but thrived mostly in the shadows. He had looks and ambition, but his talents were as guitar player, songwriter, producer.
After leaving Cowtown for good in the early ’70s, Burnett and Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, among other notables. Burnett made his name as a producer with the first Los Lobos record, Elvis Costello’s King of America, Gillian Welch’s Revival and other fantastic records, but he really shot into the stratosphere 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.
As a guitarist/songwriter for hire, Bruton was sometimes frustrated that his oldest friend, now a music industry mogul, wouldn’t throw much work his way. But T Bone said he was just waiting for the perfect project. “When Crazy Heart was a go, Stephen was the first person I called,” he said in 2009. I visited with Bruton while he was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2007. He was going to beat it, no two ways about it. He was a South Austin Superman, able to resuscitate an ailing club called the Saxon Pub, not to mention the careers of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, and the livers of hundreds he helped get sober. In his home studio, Bruton had a picture on a music stand of him playing guitar with Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson for the first time, in 1971 at the Lion’s Share in San Rafael, California. 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.” Stephen ended up playing with Kris for 17 years. Playing with Raitt was his main gig in the early ‘90s, but then Bruton came off the road to write songs, produce records (After Awhile by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gravity by Alejandro Escovedo) and play his own gigs. At age 40, he became a first-time frontman. And the star of meetings in the basements of Protestant churches. The night he died, I was on the phone with Kristofferson to write the obit. He talked about proudly watching the hotshot guitar-playing kid become a man. “When my son was going through some hard times, Stephen was there to help him get sober,” said Kristofferson, on the verge of breaking down.
It was good karma for what Kris had done for an insecure songwriter decades earlier. “Kris was always so encouraging,” said Bruton in 2007. His confidence grew when he co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album Border Lord, but Bruton’s greatest writing thrill was when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of “Getting Over You” on Willie’s terrific 1993 LP Across the Borderline. Between T Bone and Kristofferson was Delbert McClinton, who was Bruton’s running buddy in the ’60s, when a teenaged Stephen and his older brother Sumter III were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. Their father, a jazz 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. They grooved to Texas music, that lowdown blues/funk/country sound, where the juke joint met the honky tonk. Bruton would come home from a Kristofferson tour of concert halls, and then just as happily play dives with Delbert. Through his association with Kristofferson, who always kept his band with him when he was shooting movies, Bruton beefed up an acting resume. He loved being in movies so much that when he was late for guitarist Jon Dee Graham’s wedding in 1998, someone joked, “turn on a movie camera and he’ll be here in five minutes.” Though he had a bigger role in the 2004 remake of The Alamo, Bruton’s most memorable movie scene was in Songwriter. Shivering in his skivvies, Bruton has a beer bottle shot off his head by Rip Torn, as punishment for fooling around with the man’s wife.
Bruton knew the road life, both sides, as well as anybody, and he used pieces of that in helping compile the character of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. It was his idea, for instance, to have Blake empty out a urine-filled water bottle after a long drive. But Bruton’s chief contribution was crafting such songs as “I Don’t Know,” “Somebody Else” and “Fallin’ & Flyin’” that would fit Blake’s career.
Before a song was written, Burnett and Bruton listened to the records Blake would’ve grown up on- from bluegrass to Haggard to Dylan- to get inside his musical evolution. The listening sessions brought the pair back to Record Town, which father Sumter Bruton Jr. 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 McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch black rockabilly great Ray Sharpe 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.”
Crazy Heart ends with an a capella version of “Live Forever,” the Billy Joe Shaver song, sung by Robert Duvall, then the credits end with a dedication to the memory of Stephen Bruton. He passed six months before the movie opened.
On the night of May 9, 2009, 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, the guitar he bought in Fort Worth in 1960. It’s the guitar he played in the score of Crazy Heart.