NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Crazy Heart Hits the Oscar Trail

T Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham Get Best Song Nomination

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

Crazy Heart, the little country music movie that just keeps growing, was nominated for three Oscars the first week of February. Jeff Bridges is being talked about as the best actor favorite for his nominated role as Bad Blake in the movie. His rivals are George Clooney in Up in the Air Colin Firth in A Single Man, Morgan Freeman in Invictus and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. Crazy Heart’s Maggie Gyllenhaal is nominated for best supporting actress.

And, significantly, the movie’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” is nominated for best original song. It was written by T Bone Burnett (who produced the soundtrack) with Ryan Bingham. The song competes with “Loin de Paname” from Paris 36, “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans” from The Princess and the Frog (both songs written by Randy Newman) and “Take It All” from Nine.

Burnett has won Grammys for producing Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant and the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line.

Crazy Heart is a heavily atmospheric movie, and the soundtrack obviously advances the story and actually foreshadows and even tells part of the drama. It’s a familiar story of a once-successful country star now on the downward, whiskey-sodden spiral of his life and career. And what happens with that spiral. The central character is named Bad Blake.

The book from which the movie was adapted was actually written with country singer Hank Thompson as the inspiration. Thompson, who died in 2007, maintained a bit more steady life and career than does Blake. As Burnett points out, though, “Hank wrote ’Wild Side of Life,’ which is like ground zero for us growing up.”

The movie reworks the Blake character as a sort of composite of equal parts of Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, with shades of such characters as Billy Joe Shaver and David Allan Coe rolled in.

When director Scott Cooper approached him with the script, Burnett initially felt it too closely resembled the old Rip Torn movie, Payday, or even episodes of VH1 Storytellers.

“But I really love that movie, Payday,” Burnett told me, “and I love that time in movies, you know, the ’60s and ’70s. There were so many great movies and filmmakers. It was a romantic, great kind of creative world back in those days. He mentioned Jeff [Bridges], and I thought, you know, if we got Jeff, we could do something really good.”

Musically, said Burnett, he and his musical cohorts had to compose a parallel music scenario for the movie’s existing story.

“When I first read the script, there were probably 30 songs in there,” he said. “It was completely unmanageable, you know. Like 30 songs, you think about it, that’s three minutes a piece, that’s 90 minutes right there of just music. … But we started having meetings. We had probably five or six months of just sitting around a table, talking about where the songs needed to go. What kind of song needed to go there. What lyric was gonna tell the story here and all of that stuff. Because in this kind of film, the lyrics become the libretto. They become a part of the script.”

Burnett said Bingham, who had met director Cooper, had been reading the script and working on a song for the Blake character. He brought the unfinished song, “The Weary Kind,” to Burnett and settled the problem of a theme song for Crazy Heart.

“There was a song that Bad Blake was writing halfway through the second half of the movie,” Burnett said. “He was writing this song. It’s supposed to be this great song, this redeem-you song. And Tommy Sweet sings it. His [Blake’s] protégé sings it in the end. And [initially] we didn’t even really want to tackle it because it was going to be daunting. Ryan just walked in with it, which was a tremendous relief.”

For the songs themselves, Burnett said they tried to imagine Blake’s entire life and the worlds he lived and worked in.

“You go back like to when was Bad born,” Burnett said. “How old is he? So what was he listening to when he was 18 and 16 and 25? And when did he get to Nashville? When did he start trying to hit the big time? What was his first recording session? What was a hit? You just fill in the blanks like that. It was daunting looking at the blank pages of six or seven songs, but things started coming in.

“You know, Jeff brought this Greg Brown tune in, ’Brand New Angel,’ which is a beautiful tune. And Ryan brought that tune in. Stephen Bruton brought in ’Falling and Flying’ that he’d written with Gary Nicholson. And then we had three or four songs we wrote. So things started coming in, and we stared writing, and all the rest of the songs just grew out of the conversations we were having. Because everybody was cutting up the whole time, everybody’s cracking lines, so you just write down the good ones.”

Stephen Bruton was an old friend of mine from Fort Worth, Texas, who was one of those durable, made-of-rawhide guys that you were sure would live forever. He was a Texas musical icon for many years as a member of Kristofferson’s band and as a singer-songwriter and extraordinary musician. For many years, he drove an old beat-up Suburban like Bad Blake’s in the movie and crisscrossed this country many times in it. Crazy Heart turned out to be the last project of his life. He co-wrote several of the songs and co-produced the soundtrack album with Burnett. During the filming, Burnett said they were not sure of Bruton’s exact condition because he didn’t talk about it.

“These treatments, you know, they knock you down, and then you come back,” said Burnett. “And then they knock you down again, and you come back. So we didn’t really know what was happening with Stephen. But we knew that he wanted to work, he wanted to live. So we just treated him like that. There’s a temptation with people when they get sick to treat them like a disease. But all of us just said no, that’s going on, that’s part of Stephen’s life, but it’s not his whole life. It’s a small, bad part of his life. So we all just treated him like he was living, so that was all sort of in the background. By the end, we fortunately got to mix the movie. Stephen got to see the whole movie finished. That was tremendous. It was important to him to get to the end of the thing. He was playing right up to the last week. He kept going in the studio scoring and playing guitar.

“It was like he wanted to finish making the movie and then he felt he could let go. But he wasn’t gonna let go until he could finish it.”

Stephen Bruton died on May 9, 2009, from effects of throat cancer.