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Stephen Bruton was as good at it gets

Stephen Bruton was as good at it gets

Check out this wonderful article by Record Town's good friend Michael Corcoran about Stephen Burton - one of our store's founding family members.  Thank you Michael for allowing us to post your work.  We can't wait for your book on the Austin music scene Overserved to come out in 2024.

Stephen Bruton was as good at it gets

Austin music hero and role model has been gone 13 years

May 9, 2022

Stephen Bruton deserved to live forever, like the Billy Joe Shaver tune sang a capella by Robert Duvall during the credits of Crazy Heart. "Dedicated to the memory of Stephen Bruton” were the words on the screen, both cruel and comforting. Yes, he’ll live on in his music, his spirit, but Bruton was much more than that.

The beloved Austin musician and mentor was taken away 13 years ago today at age 60 while at a career peak, bravely battling throat cancer as he co-wrote and co-supervised the music for the acclaimed Crazy Heart. He shadowed lead actor Jeff Bridges (who would win an Oscar for the performance) during the shooting and saw some of his suggestions, including emptying a water bottle full of urine after a long drive on tour, make it into the film.

“It was really Stephen’s movie,” said T Bone Burnett, his partner on the film, who screened Crazy Heart for Bruton two weeks before his May 9, 2009 passing. "We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that,” said Burnett, Bruton’s friend from childhood..

"He was one of the bright spots in the lives of anyone who was close to him," said Krist Kristofferson, who hired a 20-year-old Bruton to be his guitar player in 1971. The gig lasted 17 years and made the pair as close as brothers. When Kristofferson’s son was struggling, Bruton, a longtime recovering alcoholic, inspired him get sober. He helped hundreds of strangers, too. It was natural to want what Stephen Bruton had, and he showed you the work it would take.

Stephen and Alejandro in 2008. Photo Todd V. Wolfson.

Besides playing in national touring bands, bands of Kristofferson, Bruton produced career-defining albums by Alejandro Escovedo (Gravity, 13 Years), Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marcia Ball. He made his greatest leap in his 40s, recording soulful guitar rock albums under his own name. Proudest moment: Bruton’s “Getting Over You” from 1993 solo debut What It Is was recorded by Willie Nelson (with Raitt) for the Across the Borderline album.

Still, Bruton had trouble getting gigs in Austin, where he was still thought of as a sideman. One day in’96 he approached Joe Ables, whose Saxon Pub had opened on South Lamar near Bruton’s house. “I’ll not only book ya,” Ables said, “I’ll give you the keys to the place.” Bruton took him at his word, forming the Resentments with Jon Dee Graham and Bruce Hughes, a Sunday residency still going strong with a revolving membership. One night Kristofferson came by to sing a couple songs and Ables was rewarded tenfold. “Once he started singing ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge’ I thought my head was going to explode,” said Ables of his clubowners’ dream moment.

Backed by the monster rhythm section of bassist Yoggie Musgrove and drummer Brannen Temple, Bruton’s draw improved immensely after KGSR started playing his records, especially “Bigger Wheel.”

As a producer, Bruton had a way of taking command that made you want to follow him, said Gilmore, whose 1991 album After Awhile took the singer’s nasal intelligence out of the honkytonks and into listening rooms and concert halls. "He had the right combination of genuine musicianship and organizational skill that made him such a great producer,” said Gilmore. “Plus, he was so much fun to work with."

Off-the-cuff comedy was one of Bruton's talents you won't find in liner notes, but he could take a joke as well as dish one. Once he was the best man at a wedding, but was the last to arrive. As the couple waited patiently and the guests looked back at the entrance for Bruton, someone said, "Turn on a movie camera, and he'll be here in two minutes." Everyone cracked up, including Bruton when he was told about it.

He got the acting bug from Kristofferson, who always kept his band with him when he was off shooting movies. Bruton had small roles in most of them, including Convoy, A Star Is Born, and the Heaven’s Gate disaster. His most notable film appearance was in Songwriter (1984), when, shivering in skivvies, Rip Torn shoots a beer bottle off his head. Acting was for fun, but music was for life.

Bruton, Burnett and friend Flex Fleming. Fort Worth circa 1968.

Bruton and Burnett go back to their preteens in Fort Worth. In fact, Burnett was there when Bruton bought his first favorite guitar. It was 1960 and the 12-year-olds were in the T.H. Conn music store one Saturday afternoon - every Saturday afternoon - messing around with the various stringed instruments. 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 the owner, Woods Moore, and they talked for a while,” recalled Burnett. After some lengthy chin-scratching, Moore agreed to the kid’s offer.

"Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” said Burnett. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper."

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early '70s, Burnett and Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kristofferson, McClinton and Raitt before settling in Austin in the late ‘80s. Burnett cemented his reputation as a producer with the multiplatinum touch, with the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000 and then the monster-selling Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss seven years later.

Bruton complained to associates that his oldest friend, now the king of the music biz, almost never hired him for sessions. T Bone would tell him he was just waiting for the right project. “When Crazy Heart was a go, Stephen is the first person I called," said Burnett.

Kris and the Kid 2002 at SXSW. Photo Todd V. Wolfson.

To prepare, the pair hunkered down for days, listening to music that Bad Blake might’ve been influenced by as he was coming of age. Those sessions took T Bone and Steve back to Record Town, the store Bruton's father, a jazz drummer, opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957. (It’s still open, but at a new location.)

"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 would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch sax great King Curtis and slipping into some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb. A 16-year-old Stephen became a musical adult when he and older brother Sumter were guitarists in the house band of a rowdy Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird.

"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."

Yet, both couldn’t wait to get out. Stephen’s ticket was Kristofferson, who he met in Fort Worth circa 1970. Prominently displayed on an easel in Bruton’s home studio was a framed photo of him playing guitar with Kris for the first time, in June 1971, at the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo, Calif. 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. When a spot opened in his band, Kristofferson asked that kid from Fort Worth if he was interested in playing the guitar. "Man, that's all I'm interested in," Bruton said. The union lasted “longer than any of my marriages,” Kristofferson used to joke.

Of spending his 20s and 30s on the road with the legendary songwriter, Bruton said in 2007, "I feel like we went through life together."

Kristofferson flew to L.A. May 9, 2009 when he heard his compadre was fading. "I feel fortunate that I was able to get back and say farewell," he said. "He finally knew he was going, after fighting it so hard for so long. I said I would see him again down the road, probably sooner than later." The two talked for a while, then Bruton said he had to go 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.

Watch this heroic, eloquent video of Stephen when he didn’t have much longer to live


Music by Stephen Bruton available at Record Town