Make a Long Story Short
by Andy Langer
says a dazed Stephen Bruton, looking at a printout of what is essentially
his online résumé -- a page from the All-Music Guide database (http://www.allmusic.com),
which sorts information from over 230,000 albums. "The sum of my parts somehow
looks larger than I do. I think that's a good thing." According to Bruton's
entry, the 50-year-old Ft. Worth native is credited with production, session,
or solo work on nearly 80 different recordings spanning the length of his
30-year career as a professional musician. With Bruton, whose most used conversational
phrase appears to be, "To make a long story short," it's a given that each
and every gig has an anecdote, adventure, and lesson learned attached. Whatever
the actual sum of those "parts" may equal now, however, the All-Music page
definitely amounts to the perfect Stephen Bruton primer -- everything you'd
want to know about Bruton but didn't have time to ask.
For starters, consider the list of heavy-hitters filed under Bruton's "Worked With" and "Appears On" All-Music headers: Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Delbert McClinton, Bonnie Raitt, Booker T. Jones, Don Was, T-Bone Burnett, B.W. Stevenson, Carly Simon, Lowell George, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Under "Songs Appear On," Bruton's list of songwriting credits, there's Marcia Ball, Alejandro Escovedo, Patty Loveless, and the Highwaymen, (Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash). Flip to the entry for Turner Stephen Bruton and you'll find one more: "Getting Over You," Willie Nelson's duet with Bonnie Raitt from the local country icon's critically acclaimed 1993 release, Across the Borderline.
Had Bruton been properly credited for his work on Bob Dylan's Pat Garret & Billy the Kid soundtrack 20 years earlier, he'd certainly be the only Austinite on All-Music able to lay claim to session work with both Dylan and Barbra Streisand. And because the All-Music Guide is dedicated to recorded output only, it doesn't even include Bruton's most significant accomplishments: more than a decade's worth of touring with Kristofferson, and dozens of shorter stints with many of the aforementioned artists, including Dylan. What does Bruton himself make of the All-Music list?
"I guess I probably took a lot of the stuff I worked on for granted" he says. "You're there, you don't attach any importance to it, you just do it. In retrospect, you think, 'Wow! Those are some pretty hefty gigs for a kid that age.' And while some of that came from being in the right spot, I don't think opportunity always comes to you. You have to seek it out. That's when things start happening. What did Mark Twain say? 'The harder I work, the luckier I get.' That's been the truth."
Nothing but the Truth, Bruton's third solo album, is the journeyman musician's latest testament to hard work and good fortune, and that which makes in-depth discussion of Bruton's résumé seem relevant now. It's been said that while rock & roll may be a young man's game, becoming a musician is a lifetime's work. And indeed, at the half-century mark, Bruton has made an album that reflects that lifetime of experience, balancing maturity, grace, and experimentation effortlessly. While it's also an album that reaches well beyond the scope and performance standards of the typical singer-songwriter or bar band recordings, more than anything else, Nothing but the Truth is a statement of confidence. It's the sound of a veteran sideman firmly planting himself at center stage.
"The distance from stage right to the center may only be a few feet, but traveling those five feet can take a long time. Some people take all their lives just considering them," Bruton says of the transition he began only six years ago with the release of his Antone's Records debut, What It Is. "But once I took the walk, and the more steps I took, the less scared and the more comfortable I've become. And finally, with this record, I've started to become confident enough in my songwriting to write lyrics that don't rhyme, poems with music set to them, and music that is generally more adventurous and trusting than I had been. I think there's a sensibility that comes from age -- a time when you know what you can and can't do."
Perhaps the ultimate sign of Bruton's confidence is that Nothing but the Truth approaches the singer-songwriter genre with something not even the guitarist's All-Music entries suggest: a jazz mentality. The album's two bassists, Yoggie Mussgrove and Chris Maresh, and two drummers, Brannen Temple and Tom Fillman, are more than rhythm sections -- they're conversationalists.
"I don't want to tell my band what to play," states Bruton. "I want them to bring what they play to me. When we're playing, you don't just hear guys keeping time. You hear them talking back to me. And then, it's not about me. It's about what happened between all of us at a certain point. That dialogue is jazz."
For those privy to the details of Stephen Bruton's childhood, this newfound jazz approach probably isn't much of a surprise at all. His father, Sumter Bruton Jr., a renowned jazz drummer, opened a record store that specialized in jazz, blues, and country in 1957, a little more than a decade after the Brutons moved to Ft. Worth from New Jersey. Record Town, still owned and operated today by Bruton's mother and brother, anchors one end of Ft. Worth's South University Drive, which was once the crossroads for hardcore country, blues, and jazz in Texas. In fact, Milton Brown and Bob Wills started swinging just miles away, and even before T-Bone Walker lit up the blues scene, the city's cemeteries and back alleys had long been the host of forbidden jam sessions pairing black and white jazz musicians.
"It was an interesting place to grow up," says Bruton. "The north side of Ft. Worth was still hell's half-acre, only a lot bigger."
Almost immediately, Record Town became the Ft. Worth jazz and blues scene's de facto hangout; what could be better than a mom 'n' pop record store owned by a jazz musician? Accordingly, Bruton and his brother, Sumter III., literally grew up at their father's jazz gigs and in the store. And not only were the two siblings exposed to the store's inventory and the customers' lively conversation, they also got to take home samples, since label reps would regularly bestow upon the brothers piles of cut-outs and promotional copies from artists of the day like Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Dion, Howlin' Wolf, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Kingston Trio. As with every kid exposed to music, one early record stood out: Chuck Berry's "Mad Lad." For fun and attention, Bruton used to tell his elementary school friends that he played guitar and had gone to Chicago for a session.
"They'd come over and I'd put it on, playing broom to it," says Bruton. "It was before I even knew what a guitar was, but that song just drove me nuts -- the fact that Chuck Berry could do on guitar what I'd heard Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons do on piano."
Not long afterward, Bruton glimpsed his first guitar when some local kids playing a talent show stopped by the record store. They played a Kingston Trio song and Bruton was hooked. Bruton's father bought him a Gibson that Christmas, but ultimately passed on something more important -- the idea that if Stephen was interested in the burgeoning folk scene, he owed it to himself to check out the Library of Congress recordings and see where it came from. Before long, Bruton was special-ordering records from his parent's store and checking out Son House, Robert Johnson, and Doc Boggs albums from the local libraries.
"For a few years, I lived in the Twenties and Thirties, studying those Lomax field recordings," recalls Bruton. "Every teenager wants to like something different than their father or brother and there sure wasn't anybody in Ft. Worth listening to as much of the Lomax work as me."
Although Bruton started off playing folk and "old-timey string music," he also played local teen clubs as a guest of childhood friend T-Bone Burnett, mostly just reeling off Chuck Berry solos. Meanwhile, Sumter Bruton III got used to sneaking his younger brother into adult clubs and straight under the pool table to watch local heroes like Cornell Dupree, Billy Sanders, and Delbert McClinton, a Ft. Worth bluesman only a few years older than Stephen who'd already played with Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf and other legends Bruton knew only from their records.
"The beauty of being in the clubs and the record store was that I'd been exposed to so much music and so many stories that I could see how all these different styles held hands. I could see the matrix; take the race records, put the beat on top of it with a white guy singing, and you've got Bob Wills -- and eventually, rock & roll."
While Bruton picked up the banjo and played mostly in bluegrass bands throughout his college years at TCU, he and Burnett also taught guitar and worked in Burnett's four-track studio. In 1965, still in high school, Bruton sold everything he owned and headed east for the Newport Folk Festival, where he witnessed Dylan go electric and got the opportunity to carry guitars for Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. Five years later, Bruton graduated TCU, got news of his Vietnam draft deferment, and headed off to Woodstock, New York.
"I realized this obsession with music had become more and more important," Bruton explains. "And I knew my only chance to join the circus was then, not later."
Although Bruton arrived in Woodstock with a guitar, $100, and the somewhat unrealistic hopes that he'd simply run into Van Morrison and be asked to join his band, as luck would have it, the guitarist actually did run into the legendary singer on his first day there; at the bank, where Morrison was closing his account in order to move to San Francisco. After six months of building barns and watching horses for rock stars like Rick Danko, jamming nightly with a batch of similarly young soon-to-be-session-stars, Bruton drove to New York City to see Kris Kristofferson at the Village Vanguard. A year earlier, a then-unknown Kristofferson had hung out in Ft. Worth with Bruton, and while the latter musician missed the former's show, he ran into Kristofferson and Carly Simon on the street and went on to spend a drunken evening with them, trading songs and playing guitar.
"That night, Kris asked me if I was interested in playing guitar," recalls Bruton. "I told him, 'That's all I'm interested in.'"
Three months later, Billy Swan left Kristofferson's touring band and Bruton got the call. This was the circus train he had been waiting on.
Although Kristofferson had earned acclaim for writing Johnny Cash's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," Janis Joplin's "Me & Bobby McGee," and Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," Bruton's first year with the band was anything but glamorous; he, Kristofferson, bassist Terry Paul, and drummer Donnie Fritts spent most of 1972 traveling the country in a station wagon. In between the hand-to-mouth touring, Bruton cut three albums with Kristofferson (Border Lord, Jesus Was a Capricorn, and Full Moon), plus the Billy the Kid sessions with Dylan in Mexico. As exciting as the chance to tour and record may have been, Bruton left Kristofferson's band in 1973 in order to tour with hometown hero Delbert McClinton. After completing McClinton's second Atlantic album, Subject to Change, and another year of no-frills touring, the band imploded and left Bruton back in the record store "counting White Chevys passing by."
Not idle for long, Bruton picked up work with Bob Neuwirth, Gene Clark, Lowell George, and Geoff Muldaur, while also playing on Maria Muldaur's successful Midnight at the Oasis tour. It was all solid work behind successful artists, but none of it was as good as the work Bruton was missing with Kristofferson -- a string of movie roles and duets with Rita Coolidge that made Kristofferson a household name while Bruton was still back in Texas. As luck would have it, in 1976 Kristofferson called Bruton back to the fold just in time for the filming of A Star Is Born, a role for which Kristofferson needed his own onscreen band. Bruton figured his employer needed some old friends around to keep him humble.
"The first night back, Kris and I were getting rather drunk at this rehearsal," remembers Bruton. "We were going over these songs that Paul Williams had for the movie, trying to turn this middle-of-the-road material into rock & roll. At one point, Streisand shows up and me and Kris are cussing each other. I'm stopping songs going, 'No man, not that, do this here.' We took a break and she says to Kris, 'I can't believe your sidemen are talking back to you.' Kris went 'Talking back? Hell, these are the only guys that would tell me the truth.'"
To make a long story short, as Bruton would say, he stayed nearly a decade in Kristofferson's band, toured with Christine McVie during a break, and wound up moving to Austin after working on the Willie Nelson 1982 film, The Songwriter. By the mid-Eighties, he started thinking about leaving Kristofferson's band -- to do what, he wasn't sure.
"At some point, you find yourself in a situation where the tail starts wagging the dog," he says. "Here you're with a band you love, but musically it's not challenging anymore and you've got a house in Los Angeles. You have to keep playing to keep the house and you think you're free, but you're not. It's the tradeoff. Also, it's growing up. You live in that bubble as a successful band too long and you can get into arrested development. That's part of the come-on, you never have to answer to anyone because you're never there long enough to take responsibility for what you did last night. I just knew I needed to do something different."
For Bruton, doing something different was an attempt to avoid being tagged a one-trick pony: the eternal sideman. After touring with Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, offers too good to turn down, he was asked to produce Jimmie Dale Gilmore's next album, After a While. The stakes were high: It was Bruton's first real production job, and Gilmore's debut for Elektra. Although the budget was modest, Bruton says he approached pre-production and the sessions like it was a Rolling Stones album; he knew full well a successful album could solidify his entrance into the production world. Gilmore's album wound up a critically acclaimed breakthrough, but Bruton's next production project came accidentally. As the much-told story goes, Alejandro Escovedo suspected Bruton (in running shorts and Ray-Bans) was either a narc or a drug dealer when he rang him up as a customer at Waterloo Records. After the diversity of Bruton's purchases impressed Escovedo, however, the former True Believer asked the guitarist to produce his first solo album, 1992's Gravity. Thirteen Years, the second Escovedo/Bruton pairing, came two years later. Between the Escovdeo projects, Antone's Records asked Bruton to record his first solo record. To this day, Bruton claims he never considered a solo career until he was asked.
"I never wanted it. I always hid in bands. I always held in reverence that Kristofferson was this unbelievable writer. I did Billy Joe Shaver's first album, another great writer. I did a Carly Simon album. I've stood onstage with Streisand, and when that woman sings the hair on your neck goes up. I was so surrounded by greatness that I never took for granted what I was privy to. I always felt like I had sneaked under the circus tent's flap."
Bruton may not have realized it, but with his record-store education, road work with world-class acts, and the hundreds of hours logged on both sides of the studio glass, a solo career was hardly a risk, especially with the modest expectations of a small indie like Antone's. And Bruton had the songs -- songs folks like McClinton, Raitt, and Kristofferson were encouraging him to shop harder. At least on paper, the only thing Bruton lacked was the kind of voice that can carry a whole album. At first, Bruton didn't disagree.
"I eventually came to believe that singing is not about being a virtuosic singer, but about telling the truth. And telling the truth can be much more important than chops. I know that when Kristofferson sings 'Sunday Morning Coming Down,' buddy, that's it. When Bonnie Raitt sings 'I Can't Make You Love Me' Or 'Nick of Time,' that's it. It's the bottom line. It's Son House singing 'Death Letter Blues.' The truth only has to be whispered -- lies have to be screamed forever to be heard."
By and large, Bruton's two Antone's releases, 1993's What It Is and 1995's Right on Time, wound up better than okay. Neither sold well, but Bruton's voice, songs, and band grew noticeably more confident each time out. Then again, there was little in Bruton's catalog to suggest an album as funky and organic as Nothing but the Truth. Bruton credits his band and producer Stephen Barber for the looser sound, but it's clear only the guitarist could have initiated the shift. Over the course of three albums, the eternal sideman had become comfortable enough as a frontman to turn and cultivate a band without sidemen. If that sounds a bit too pat, consider this: Bruton's trademark as a sideman was his flexibility. In fact, Kristofferson used to tell him, "Stephen, you never play the same thing once." That Bruton wants players that will go toe-to-toe with him, not stand by his side, is perhaps equally a product of his jazz upbringing and his age; at 50, who wants to be playing the same songs, the same way, night after night?
Bruton's need for flexibility may also be why he isn't willing to close the door on his own sideman career. Week in and week out, Bruton can be glimpsed in the sideman's role at the Saxon Pub: Sundays with the Resentments (an all-star collective with labelmate Jon Dee Graham) and Mondays with Lonelyland, Scabs frontman Bob Schneider's semi-acoustic singer-songwriter project. Upcoming tours in support of Nothing but the Truth will likely limit Bruton's role in both projects, as well as curtail his production work (he's produced albums for the Loose Diamonds, Sue Foley, Storyville, and Hal Ketchum in recent years), but Bruton insists he's at a point in his career where he can balance production work, his sideman gigs, and what looks like a burgeoning solo career. Better yet, he says he's found the point where all three aspects intersect -- where being a producer makes him a better recording artist and being a sideman makes him a better frontman. The bottom line, says Bruton, is that playing live has never been more fun.
"I still can't get over the fact that I make a living making music. I know I've worked really hard at it, but to get to be a professional at something that is your passion is everything. My dad played music six nights a week and had a record store. That was his passion and it became mine. I've never gotten over it. Even when it went south and I went back to Ft. Worth to play sleazy bars, I still enjoyed myself. I've never taken any of this for granted. It is a gift to be treated reverently, but it's also fun. That's the deal."