(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I have up on my office wall right now one of the true icons of the modern age of the return to roots music movement — although I didn’t know that’s what it was when I bought it in the late 1960s. This orange label Mercury 45 rpm single of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy singing “Paralyzed” (not the Elvis song of the same name) was T Bone Burnett’s first record production.
These days, of course, Burnett is known as the much heralded producer responsible for the enormous success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the current Cold Mountain soundtrack.
Burnett became known as a “subtle” producer who is very skillful at understanding and then allowing and encouraging artists to best express their best work spontaneously in the studio. Boy, did he do that with Norman Carl Odam, better known as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Burnett is from St. Louis (born John Henry Burnett), but he grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, as I did, weaned on an intense diet of western swing and honky-tonk and gut-bucket blues. It was a musical arena where nothing was considered unusual, where the teenaged Delbert McClinton was blowing harp in seamy dives with the likes of Jimmy Reed. Music there knew no limits or boundaries.
Norman Carl Odam was from Lubbock, in far West Texas, where the great rock ’n’ roll and country pioneer Buddy Holly had preached and proven the lesson that anything was possible through music. Odam taught himself music and arrived at a very individual style, marked by free-form verbalizing and atonal musical riffing. He apparently tested and transcended Lubbock’s musical tastes and tolerances after performing on the roofs of local drive-in theaters.
As I recall the story, “Paralyzed” was recorded in 1968 at a little studio the young T Bone had bought that was located underneath radio station KXOL in Fort Worth. Stories are murky about how Odam got there, but apparently he was on his way from his native Lubbock to New York City because he felt a calling to appear on Johnny Carson’s TV show. He recorded his masterpiece of free-form rock, “Paralyzed,” accompanying himself on guitar and trumpet, with Burnett producing and playing drums. You have to hear it — words literally cannot describe that song.
T Bone reportedly took the tape of “Paralyzed” straight upstairs to KXOL, where they played it to great audience acclaim. He supposedly pressed 500 copies, other radio stations picked it up and word spread to record labels in those days when regional hits could spread nationally.
Paul Nelson at Mercury Records (who later signed the New York Dolls to the label) heard about the growing radio furor surrounding the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and signed the Ledge to a singles deal at Mercury. This is Mercury national; not Mercury Nashville. The song actually charted in Billboard, and he appeared on the network TV show Laugh-In. “Paralyzed” was followed by such equally impenetrable but just as mesmerizing songs as “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” and “Down in the Wrecking Yard.”
Burnett left Fort Worth for L.A., went on to cult stardom with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and with his own Alpha Band. He also produced artists ranging from Delbert McClinton and Jimmy Dale Gilmore to Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Counting Crows’ debut album and Roy Orbison. His solo albums are idiosyncratic pleasures, and I very much like his self-titled 1986 album and his Behind the Trap Door.
And of course he has neared musical sainthood with the O Brother soundtrack and its critical and commercial success. It’s not too far afield to say that O Brother has saved and revived acoustic music. Now his newest soundtrack, Cold Mountain, again showcases his basic strength: that of fitting artist and music and context. Burnett’s skills have been, I feel, a bit overlooked in assessing these two soundtracks. Both obviously work extremely well at the incredibly difficult tasks of serving as both a credible movie soundtrack and also as a stand-alone CD.
Burnett almost makes it look easy — which it most assuredly is not. But his skills are self-evident: for example, his matching the previously-unheralded Dan Tyminski to the old Stanley Brothers song “Man of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother is brilliant. He does the same again in fitting the White Stripes’ Jack White — whom many would have dismissed as incompatible to this project — with songs that are the standouts from Cold Mountain. And his attention to musical detail and historical perspective is remarkable. Obviously, enlisting Ralph Stanley to keen the ethereal “O Death” was a spot-on musical assignment in O Brother. Again, his assessment of artist and song is dead-on. If Cold Mountain doesn’t make Alison Krauss a star far beyond the world of bluegrass, I’ll be sadly mistaken. And her songs here are written by Burnett, Elvis Costello and Sting — hardly bluegrass mossbacks.
But, you know, I still prize the extraordinary rawness of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s primal sounds, the limitless musical freedom that the endless blue skies of West Texas afforded him. Those same skies inspired Orbison, Holly, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely and others to a more lyrical sound. But the Ledge felt a different vibration from those wide open spaces, and T Bone obviously zoned in on those vibrations.
The Ledge deserves to be heard again. Maybe. I got letters periodically from him, when the Ledge was working at a hotel in Las Vegas and still nursing dreams of stardom. Things now seem to be turning again in his favor. He started recording again. David Bowie recorded his “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” on his 2002 Heathen CD and now the Ledge pops up as a web cult figure. More — cosmic — power to him. Roots are truly where you find them.