NASHVILLE SKYLINE: From O Brother to Crazy Heart, Many Musical Triumphs for T Bone Burnett

But None Were More Striking Than the Debut of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The other day, when I was talking with T Bone Burnett about the music he wrote and produced and generally oversaw for the new movie Crazy Heart, he and I started trading music stories about Fort Worth, Texas, where you could once see and hear blues legends-to-be such as T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed and the then-teenaged Delbert McClinton and jazz great Ornette Coleman and Western swing king Bob Wills and sax whiz King Curtis and many others.

We finally got around to one of T Bone’s greatest musical moments, and one of his earliest. It involved a genuine music character that we both remember fondly. And it was a reminder of the distant days when anything was possible in the music world.

T Bone’s music for the soundtrack of Crazy Heart is a very graphic and aural reminder of that Texas era. With that soundtrack, he recreated the vivid music world that would have shaped and influenced the movie’s lead character, Bad Blake, as a country music artist growing up and working in Texas in those days. Music he would have heard then in Texas ranges from Tejano music queen Lydia Mendoza to Houston blues wizard Lightnin’ Hopkins to troubadour Townes Van Zandt to George Jones’ East Texas honky-tonk sound.

But let’s go back to Fort Worth in the late ’60s. It’s where T Bone was raised after being born in St. Louis, and it’s where I was born and raised. In 1968, T Bone was working in a little recording studio in Fort Worth. He recalled what happened when he encountered Norman Carl Odam, who styled himself “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.” Odam was born in Lubbock, Texas, also the home of rock pioneer Buddy Holly, and the Ledge was once a school classmate of Joe Ely. But he obviously longed for a bigger horizon than Lubbock afforded.

T Bone recalls, “We had been up recording all night, and some guys from the vacuum cleaner company across the hall came over and said, ’There was this guy playing at the Round-Up Inn last night, and when he started screaming, the waitress threw her tray of drinks all over the room.’ I said, ’Bring him in here!'”

So they did. The Ledge had been driving his Chevy — painted up with Stardust Cowboy murals and inscriptions — on his way to New York to try to get on The Tonight Show when he stopped off in Fort Worth.

The Ledge’s music — in songs such as “Paralyzed” and “Down in the Wrecking Yard” — was stark and eye-opening and mind-blowing, almost like shock treatment for rock and country music audiences. It has since attracted converts as diverse as British rock icon David Bowie, who recorded the Ledge’s “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Space Ship” on his album, Heathen. Bowie also said he took the word “stardust” for his alter ego “Ziggy Stardust” from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s name. And Bowie invited the Ledge to perform at his 2007 High Line music festival in Manhattan. On a solo tour after Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant played the Ledge’s Rock-It to Stardom album on the house sound system.

But, at the time Burnett and Odam made those recordings, the music was … well, quite spacey. His magnum opus, the song “Paralyzed,” is two and a-half minutes of the Ledge screaming the words and shrieking and thrashing his guitar and occasionally throwing in a bugle solo, with T Bone bashing away on the drums. It remains a very satisfying and intriguing recording. He may have invented psychobilly music, primitive rock and garage country right there on the spot. I wonder if the Sex Pistols or the Ramones heard that song early on.

T Bone took the tape of “Paralyzed” upstairs to radio station KXOL, and they played it on the air that day, to great response.

Mercury Records signed the Ledge and actually got real, organized radio play for “Paralyzed” and some chart success at Billboard. That led to an invitation for the Ledge to appear on the network TV show Laugh-In. And that in turn led to offers to appear on other TV variety shows of the day. But a musicians’ strike intervened and short-circuited his rise to fame. His career since has been marked by many side turns. Long before the advent of New York City’s Naked Cowboy, the Ledge played the stage of New York’s Folk City club wearing only his white jockey briefs and cowboy boots. Not all audiences understand him.

The Ledge — last I heard — now lives and works in California. Long may he wave.