Stephen Bruton (1948-2009) died of complications of throat cancer in Los Angeles on May 9, 2009, aged 60. Bruton worked with such artists and musicians as NRBQ, T Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, Rita Coolidge, Christine McVie, Elvis Costello, Delbert McClinton, Sonny Landreth and Carly Simon. He produced albums for Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hal Ketchum, Storyville, Kris Kristofferson and Chris Smither.
If a stranger asks Stephen Bruton what he does for a living, “I’m a guitar player” is the simple answer. But if Bruton were to ask the same question of himself, the response would be another question: “Whadda ya need?” That’s because Bruton is far more than just a guitar player par excellence. He is also a songwriter, singer, recording artist, record producer, actor, collaborator, and something of a raconteur and provocateur. One could dub him a renaissance man, but for Bruton it’s more just a matter of doing what needs to be done the best it can be done.
From The Five plays like a rocking night at a Texas roadhouse, albeit one where you come away with reflections on the state of the world and the hard-earned wisdom and lessons that life offers. “It’s not so much autobiographical as observations on where we are now,” explains Bruton. In between his opening thoughts on a higher power in the driving, bluesy rocker “Bigger Wheel” and the closing grace note of “In The Wind,” he looks at how we live today (“Walk By Faith” and “The Clock”), the burdens we carry (“Treasured Wounds” and “The Halo Effect”) and all that we’ve lost (“Every Once In A While,” “Fading Man” and “That Moment When”). And even though Bruton’s lyrical ruminations are as deep as his musical roots, From The Five also offers an uplifting boost with “This Old World” and a witty take on heartbreak with “Put Me Out Of Your Misery.”
Bruton's sense of quality as well as his musical breadth is etched into the proverbial grooves of From The Five. After all, it's his fifth album, he wrote most of it at the age of 55, and it’s being released in 2005. The title comes from a bit of musicians’ slang: “Take it from the five,” the cue to start a song from the five chord rather than the one or root chord of the song’s key to give it a little twist. To wit, From The Five takes the rock, blues, country and R&B that is all found on Bruton’s musical palette and adds his own distinctive twists as well.
Although Bruton has produced acclaimed albums for Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hal Ketchum, Storyville and Chris Smither among others, on From The Five he turns over the producer’s chair to another. This time out, it’s his old friend and associate Ross Hogarth, whose credits include production work for Melissa Etheridge, Ziggy Marley and Gov’t Mule and engineering albums by R.E.M. and John Cougar Mellencamp. After all, as Bruton explains, “It’s kind of like the old adage that the doctor can’t operate on himself.”
Assisting the doctor with finesse and surgical precision is a stellar crew of players. Holding down the bottom end are Bruton’s longtime bass player Yoggie Musgrove and drummer Steve Ferrone (who plays with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and has done stints with everyone from Average White Band to Eric Clapton). On keyboards are Little Feat’s Bill Payne and Austin player and composer Stephen Barber. Bruton and his buddy Randy Jacobs handle guitar duties. Old Fort Worth pal Glen Clark spices the mix with his harmonica while, Lon Price, leads the horn section on a number of tracks.
Bruton’s penchant for collaboration finds him co-writing nine of the album’s songs with friends like former NRBQ guitarist turned hit Nashville songwriter Big Al Anderson and Memphis rocker John Kilzer as well as Barber, Payne, Musgrove and Jacobs. The one cover on the set is “Ordinary Man,” which he heard sung by Sam Moore and Junior Walker at the end of the movie Tapeheads. “I thought, that’s the most rocking song and started doing it in my shows.”
It’s almost an understatement to say that Turner Stephen Bruton grew up surrounded by music in Fort Worth, Texas. His jazz drummer father ran a record store where he was weaned on the musical classics from blues, country, jazz and pop to classical. “He always said, if you’re going to listen to music, listen to the best music,” recalls Bruton.
By his teen years, Bruton and his buddy T-Bone Burnett were laying down tracks in Burnett’s makeshift home studio in between gigging with other pals like Delbert McClinton, all the while digging on musical giants like Freddie King and Ornette Coleman - who could be heard in the local clubs. Bruton sharpened his guitar chops playing high lonesome bluegrass by day and then soaked up some soul by grinding out the blues at night on the other side of town.
“The thing about Fort Worth is that there was no scene there,” Bruton explains. “No one was looking at Fort Worth, believe me. But there was great music there and always has been. It’s always been black guys and white guys playing together. There was this great exchange of music.”
Young wanderlust led him East in 1970 to the musical mecca of Woodstock in New York’s Hudson River Valley. One night he headed down to Manhattan to catch a gig by his friend Kris Kristofferson and was offered the guitar gig in the rising songwriting star’s band. That launched nearly two decades of regular roadwork with Kristofferson as well as touring with Bonnie Raitt, Christine McVie and others.
By the mid 1980s, Bruton returned to his Texas roots and settled in Austin, where once he had a break from the road, he became a part of the city’s thriving music community. Although he had produced an album with Burnett for Fort Worth legend Robert Ely and the song ““Amnesia & Jealousy” for Burnett’s Behind The Trap Door album, his production career began in earnest when Jimmie Dale Gilmore asked him to produce his major label debut, After Awhile.
Bruton also debuted as an artist in his own right with What It Is in 1993. And as he stepped out from being a sideman into the spotlight with his own songs, they began to be recorded by such notable artists as Kristofferson, Raitt, Ketchum, The Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Little Feat, Jimmy Buffett, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell and Martina McBride among others.
And ever since he appeared in A Star Is Born with Kristofferson in 1976, Bruton has also built an impressive resume as a film and TV actor. “When Kris started doing films, he would bring his buddies along because he always had the bullshit meter with us. So we wound up reading for parts,” Bruton explains. His most recent screen role is in Man Of The House with Tommy Lee Jones, and he’s been seen in such films as Convoy, Songwriter,Heaven’s Gate, Miss Congeniality, Sweet Thing and The Alamo as well as the TV movie A Seduction In Travis County, the miniseries Amerika and the series Matlock.
“In acting, you use everything you use when you are playing music live,” notes Bruton. “It’s an ensemble thing. It’s real similar in terms of support and collaboration.” Bruton’s collaborative bent is also expressed by his membership in the Austin band The Resentments with Jon Dee Graham and other local heroes.
But even with all his varied pursuits, “the guitar is the constant among variables in my life,” says Bruton. Since playing with Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge on their Full Moon album in 1973, he has been an in-demand player who has recorded with Raitt, McClinton, Burnett, Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, The Wallflowers, Sonny Landreth, Peter Case, Ray Wylie Hubbard and a slew of others.
“I really enjoy doing lots of things, whether it’s playing a bit part in The Alamo or playing guitar with Bob Schneider for a couple of years. And then I produce and do my own thing,” he explains.
So for Bruton, the view From The Five is very sweet indeed. “I’ve got no complaints. I get to do what I love. How many people can say that? And that’s worth more than anything. I’d be doing it anyway. And I’ve been very fortunate to do what I do for a long time.”
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