‘I want my writing to be more nuanced’

Breaking down a story that operates in the gray areas

It would be unfair to address this to any reporter who has a stupid boss…but, what the hell.

'I want my writing to be more nuanced

'I want my writing to be more nuanced

This goes out to any reporter who has a stupid boss. A boss who, perhaps, was an editor for only one or two years and has been forced to learn the craft through osmosis, which means he or she relies upon weak instincts. Or a boss who is looking over his or her shoulder too often, and is afraid of your good ideas because he or she doesn’t have the courage to support or defend them. (Carl Hiaasen’s new novel, “Basket Case,” features a sparkling profile of such a boss: “…Emma, bless her sorority-sister soul, has never been a reporter. Judging by the strenuous syntax of her memos, she likely would have difficulty composing a thank-you note…”)

The thing about stupid editors is that they only see in primary colors, or big fat categories, like winners and losers–or, more accurately, only in winners. A reporter told me in frustration once that she had been tracking a gang-violence-reduction program which, upon final analysis, proved to have failed. Well, her boss said, I guess there goes the story. No, the reporter said, that IS the story–I want to write a story about why it didn’t work. A stalemate ensued. World-views collided.

This is offered in the interest of making sure you get your way more often when you decide, like that reporter, that the nuance is the news–that you would like to operate in the gray or muted or subtle area of the story, not merely the red or green (read: obvious or exaggerated) shades. News often, and appropriately, forces us to the obvious angle, but your ability to enjoy a career as a reporter requires you to be sensitive to more complex moments-and to be able to argue your case with that stupid (read: literal-minded) boss.

What follows is a recent feature story from the New York Times about a record producer whose successful style is marked by what he DOESN’T do–he defers, as often as possible, to the instincts of the performer, and is a master at getting the hell out of the way, rather than imposing his will on the artist.

Trouble is, writing about the absence of control is a difficult abstraction: You can proclaim it, but where do you find an example? How do you establish context? How do you hold your audience?

The writer of this article, Billy Altman, decided not rush into his discussion of the producer’s style; the piece begins as a profile of an idiosyncratic career, augmented by the time element of the approaching Grammy Awards ceremony. But the nuance–the discussion of the producer’s style–is the soul of the piece, so much so that the headline writer used it.

Take a read:

A MUSIC MAKER HAPPY TO BE JUST A CONDUIT
By Billy Altman
February 24, 2002

The lead works to connect the producer’s roots to his exploratory style–a constant. This story has a slower pace than a news feature (witness the digression for the nickname in the first graf), but the purposefulness gives it energy nonetheless.

T-Bone Burnett remembers his first recording studio. It was the mid-1960’s, and he had just graduated from high school in Fort Worth, where he grew up, officially, as Joseph Henry Burnett III, but had been, since the age of 5, T-Bone to his friends. “I have no memory of exactly how the nickname happened, but I can say I came by it honestly,” he recalled recently. “It had nothing to do with the blues, though when people meet me, about half the time they say, `I thought you were black,’ and I reply, `I thought I was, too.’ ”

There was a small recording studio in town that was for sale, and Mr. Burnett and a few friends scraped together enough money to buy it–even though, he said, “we started working there without knowing anything about recording.”

Now the writer lets a fine quote do the work. T-Bone’s words are more articulate and more pointed than Billy’s syntax, so Billy (like T-Bone) gets out of the way.

“These days everybody has a studio in their bedroom, and they’re more complicated than what we had,” he continued. “But at the time–1965–making records was something of a black art, and we just jumped in and started plugging things in. Every once in a while they’d make a really good sound, and every once in a while a really horrible one. I found both equally mysterious and fascinating.”

Now the story hooks the past to the present and characterizing the producer’s place in the world (last sentence of the next graf).

Nearly four decades later, T-Bone Burnett, 54, is still just jumping in and plugging things in to see what might happen. He first gained national exposure in 1975 as a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s sprawling Rolling Thunder Revue. Since then, through both his own recordings as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter (highlighted by gem-filled recordings like “Truth Decay,” in 1980, and “T-Bone Burnett,” in 1986) as well as his work as the producer of more than 40 albums by artists ranging from Elvis Costello and Roy Orbison to Los Lobos and the Bodeans, Mr. Burnett has remained a singular–and refreshingly unpredictable–presence on the popular music scene.

And now the time angle:

On Wednesday, his ever-twisting career will take another turn when Mr. Burnett attends the 2002 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where he has lived since the early 1970’s. Six recordings he produced are up for Grammys – five of them stemming from the soundtrack album to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which, despite little commercial airplay, has sold more than four million copies, making it the best- selling country album of 2001. (It is nominated for both soundtrack and album of the year.) Additionally, Mr. Burnett is himself a nominee for producer of the year, in recognition of his efforts on not only “O Brother” but also the album “Down From the Mountain” (from a documentary of a concert featuring performers from “O Brother”) and “Fandance,” the latest release by Mr. Burnett’s wife, the singer-songwriter Sam Phillips.

The next graf goes deeper into Burnett’s style, which requires an explanation of the quirky nature of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The unexpected popularity of the “O Brother” soundtrack–an all-acoustic affair filled with vintage songs performed by such contemporary keepers of the traditional music flame as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, the Whites, the Cox Family, John Hartford, Gillian Welch and the bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley–follows in the path of several other surprise hit albums produced by Mr. Burnett in recent years: “August and Everything After” (1993) by Counting Crows and “Bringing Down the Horse” (1996) by the Wallflowers, led by Bob Dylan’s son Jakob.

Still deeper into Burnett’s style, making the key proclamation about the difference between Burnett and the control-freak style of producer (underlined). The writer believes he has given you enough context to be able to be explicitly technical. The “conduit-versus-conductor” language brings technique down to a level anyone can understand.

About all these albums have in common is Mr. Burnett’s involvement–testament to his reputation as a producer who is particularly sensitive to the needs of artists, much like an “actor’s director” in movies. Unlike a Phil Ramone (known for his sonic clarity) or a Daniel Lanois (known for his sonic density), Mr. Burnett is far more interested in being a conduit than in being a conductor.

Nice transition that lets Burnett continue speaking:

Witness his take on the commercial success of “O Brother.” “To me it just sounded like a really good record,” he said flatly. “I had high hopes for it because we had a broadcast medium that wasn’t dependent on the power structure in Nashville. We had this movie–a movie starring George Clooney at that–and I thought, if people hear this music they’ll like it, because it’s good. In the final analysis, I think it was really that simple.”

At this point the writer, a veteran music critic, allows himself to write with the authority he has earned. (Underlined next graf.) You can’t do this on a subject you’re unfamiliar with, but you can push your reporting harder, seeking enough insight to provide some degree of interpretation. Note that no matter how much an expert Altman is, he backs up his critical proclamation with a quote from a player, the movie’s producer. This paragraph marks another layer of depth, as it takes us into a passage about Burnett’s eclectic work on movie sound tracks.

Perhaps, but there is no doubt that Mr. Burnett’s sympathetic guidance, as well as his knowledge of American music traditions, played a huge role in the overall tone and spirit of the music for “O Brother.” “Being so heavily involved in roots music, we called him before we’d even finished the script,” said Ethan Coen, the movie’s producer. And, noted his brother and its director, Joel Coen, “We knew this was right up his alley, even more than the last film he worked with us on, `The Big Lebowski.’ ”

Mr. Burnett’s relationship with the Coens actually dates to their 1987 screwball comedy “Raising Arizona.” “I must have seen it 20 times,” Mr. Burnett said. “It was as if someone was reading my mail or something. I felt such a kinship with the filmmakers that I just called them up to say, `Hey.’ And we wound up getting together and becoming friends.”

Over the years, the Coens kept Mr. Burnett in mind for their projects, and eventually they asked him to pick songs for the soundtrack of “The Big Lebowski.” “We knew we wanted different genres and music from different times,” said Joel Coen. “Creedence to Nina Simone to Moondog to Dylan. T-Bone even came up with some far-out Henry Mancini and Yma Sumac.”

Okay, we’ve read 11 grafs so far, we’re in the middle of the story, and it is here that the writer senses we can handle an expanded passage about Burnett’s producing style, or non-style. First, we observe Burnett’s self-characterization:

Mr. Burnett said of his work on the movie: “I guess ordinarily that job would be called music supervisor. But I asked that my credit be `music archivist.’ I hated the notion of being a supervisor; I wouldn’t want anyone to think of me as management.”

And now, in the 13th through 15th grafs, comes the anecdote, about Gillian Welch, that sells the concept. Watch, also, how Altman inserts a deeper, beautiful explanation of the styles that shape the soundtrack (underlined):

Significantly, one of the songs that he had included on a tape of tracks he had asked the Coens to consider for the soundtrack was Mr. Stanley’s goosebump-raising 1950 recording of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” When the Coens began working on their screenplay for “O Brother,” in which the confluence of Appalachian mountain music, Delta blues and Southeastern gospel is the backdrop, they remembered that song. Soon the Coens, Mr. Burnett and the associate producer he recruited for the project, the singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, were putting together songs and performers for the film.

Ms. Welch is one of many young musicians for whom Mr. Burnett has served as a combination producer and mentor. “He has a very light hand in the studio,” Ms. Welch said of Mr. Burnett, who produced her 1996 debut album, “Revival.” “He had a deep and abiding concern that I find my way as an artist, that my first record should show the world what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to sound like. He wants the records he produces to be what the songs want to be. It’s a very transparent production style and very changing from artist to artist. I think it’s one of the reasons he’s so great at making first records on people. He has this crazy knack, even if you don’t know yourself what your core material is, he does.”

When asked to describe his production style, Mr. Burnett said: “I would say I try to touch the thing as little as possible. I try to pay attention and look for the soul of the thing rather than try to hammer songs into shape. Most of the time, I’m listening for the overtones and the undertones.”

Now the article focuses on Burnett’s other current work:

These are busy times for Mr. Burnett. He recently joined forces with the Coen brothers to form a label, DMZ, which will be distributed by Columbia Records. Its first releases, due later this year, will be a new album by Mr. Stanley (“To me, he is American music,” said Mr. Burnett) and a soundtrack for a film based on the best-selling 1997 novel “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” (It will be directed by Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for “Thelma and Louise.”)

An example of that other work sets up the ending.

For that soundtrack, Mr. Burnett recently came to Englewood, N.J., to oversee the recording of a track with Tony Bennett at Bennett Studios, which is run by Mr. Bennett’s sons, Dae and Danny, in partnership with their father. Mr. Burnett relied on several older techniques for the session: it was recorded live, with no overdubs, using a vintage drum kit. As the session got going, Mr. Burnett sat in a reclining chair in the control room and listened intently as Mr. Bennett and his quartet completed an intimate, evocative rendition of the Nat (King) Cole standard “If Yesterday Could Only Be Tomorrow” in just a few takes.

Afterward, Mr. Bennett revealed that this session had been his first at the studio since it opened in October–a fact that brought an even broader smile to the face of an already beaming Mr. Burnett. (“Sahib,” he exclaimed, shaking Mr. Bennett’s hand.)

Later, heading back to Manhattan, Mr. Burnett said that when he first approached Mr. Bennett about doing the song, the singer told Mr. Burnett that he had wanted to record it for years but somehow had never found the right opportunity. Shaking his head in near disbelief, Mr. Burnett said, “Isn’t it amazing how things can happen?”

Through luck or skill, and only God knows the difference sometimes, Altman has an ending in which he can play off the “how things happen” quote by Burnett. It comes from an interview with another musician, Peter Case, who admires Burnett. Whether the quote came out of Case’s mouth unsolicited, or whether Altman was recounting Burnett’s quote to Case is unknown, but look at the sweet dynamic between the way the previous graf ended and the way this next one starts:

The singer-songwriter Peter Case, who made the transition from leader of the new wave band the Plimsouls to solo acoustic artist in the mid-1980’s with Mr. Burnett’s help, said: “Believing that things can happen–that really is T-Bone’s whole vibe. He’s like a wildcatter. He’s one of those guys who’s constantly out there drilling all these wells, and someday one of them’s going to hit. A Texas tradition, right?”

Emboldened with the rhythm he has created, Altman indulges himself by writing his own coda, letting the ending resonate to the first graf:

Right. Just like guys named T- Bone.

The article has the advantage of being prescient: A few days later, “Oh Brother” won four Grammys.

RECOMMENDED READING: Since we’re on the subject of music, here’s something to ponder: If the “Oh Brother” soundtrack was so goddamned good, how come all the geniuses who run country-music radio turned and ran away from it? This was a question one of my colleagues, Jeff Leeds, decided to deal with in a post-Grammy profile of the man whose record label released the record. It’s a good example of a business writer expanding his beat to look at the intersection between commerce and art–a great, highly overlooked nexus:

‘O BROTHER’ CD PUTS LOST HIGHWAY RECORDS ON MAP
By Jeff Leeds
March 5, 2002

Radio programmers pride themselves on their skill in reading listeners’ musical tastes.

So it’s easy to understand why some country music radio executives tense up at mention of Luke Lewis. The soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” released by Lewis’ Lost Highway Records label, won the Grammy Award for album of the year last week, punctuating the success of a release that has racked up estimated sales of 4 million copies–even though most radio stations chose not to air it.

“A lot of programmers are risk-averse, and they’re more worried about people tuning out than they are interested in drawing people in,” Lewis said. “In their minds, ‘O Brother’ is at best a novelty record. To them it doesn’t [fit their format], but maybe that’s because everything else they’re playing sounds the same. They’ve got to pay attention now.”

Barely a year after opening its doors, Lost Highway is emerging as a source of cutting-edge country music and proving that record labels can thrive without lavishing millions on radio promotion. The label was launched as a joint venture of two of Vivendi Universal’s music divisions: Mercury Nashville and Island Def Jam. Country is by far the most popular radio format in the nation, accounting for about 20% of all commercial stations.

Lewis, 55, who has been in the music business since the mid- 1970s, has been running Mercury Nashville for a decade. And he is credited with developing country-pop star Shania Twain, who has the best-selling album of the last decade.

Lost Highway, which Lewis launched with Island Def Jam President Lyor Cohen, became the first new Nashville label in a decade and set out to nurture alternative country artists who had received little airplay. Lewis’ business plan is to sign artists who already bring a cult following, then build sales by investing in retail advertising and street marketing. Owing primarily to the success of “O Brother,” the label earned more than $20 million on estimated sales of $50 million, Universal sources said.

The film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is set in Depression-era Mississippi and follows three escaped convicts in a retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey.” The soundtrack draws on folk, bluegrass and Appalachian music performed by such acts as Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.

To promote the “O Brother” soundtrack, Lost Highway distributed thousands of free copies of the album at bluegrass festivals, packaged in a “Dapper Dan” pomade container inspired by the film, and made available free downloads of at least three songs from the album on Web sites such as Amazon.com. Lewis also credits the heavy rotation received for the music video for the lead single, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” on the Country Music Television cable channel.

Lost Highway’s success is likely to stoke the already heated tension between country music’s label chiefs and radio executives. Lewis and other record executives say country music has become boring and is losing its identity.

Broadcasters say the genre is healthy but the distinctions among radio formats are too rigid to allow them to experiment with more traditional sounds, including the rootsy songs of the “O Brother” soundtrack.

Lewis contends that the time is right for programmers at country stations to broaden their playlists. On average, ratings at country stations have dropped about 33% since 1995, according to radio representation firm Interep. And even with the crossover success of Faith Hill and other acts, country albums accounted for just 9% of the U.S. music market last year, down from about 12% in 1995, according to data from SoundScan.

But several radio station programmers said they are not about to start embracing more traditional country music.

“We don’t drill down into other genres of country. We are just [playing] the hits,” said Michael Cruise, program director for country music giant KKBQ-FM, a Houston station that plays the same songs by top acts as many as 100 times a week.

“We knew going in there was no reason to even test this thing” with listeners, he said. “We’re not very willing to play records just willy-nilly without the benefit of [listener] research.”

Radio stations’ primary tool for examining listeners’ tastes is “call-out research,” phone polling in which listeners rate a song after hearing a snippet played over the phone. Joe Lenski, vice president of Edison Media Research, said such polling tends to favor music that sounds familiar but “doesn’t do a good job of picking the next new trend.”

Edison data released last week are spurring more debate about “O Brother.” A survey conducted last month found that among country music fans who knew of the film or owned the album, 50% said radio stations should play more such music–five times the number of respondents who said programmers should play less.

“There’s a disconnect when a phenomenon like ‘O Brother’ isn’t even talked about on the radio station,” Lenski said. “Here, programmers are saying, ‘We know better than you.’ That’s a mistake. They all missed this, and they’ll probably miss the next big thing.”

Moreover, an analysis of Internet file-swapping services suggests that contrary to some programmers’ contentions, the music of “O Brother” gained a following among fans of more contemporary country. Data from Los Angeles research firm BigChampagne shows that among fans who downloaded songs from the soundtrack, the acts most frequently downloaded are mainstream country stars, including Alan Jackson, George Strait and Toby Keith–the same artists who top the playlists of many country stations.

Lewis, a former Army journalist, broke into the record business when he landed a job as a sales rep for CBS Records in 1976. He spent more than a decade with the company, then became MCA’s vice president of sales and marketing in 1988. Four years later, he was lured to Tennessee by Mercury’s Nashville division, where he was named president.

He describes Lost Highway’s success as “Music Business 101.”

“You just try to get as many people as you can to hear the music,” he said. “Get it exposed and get it in a store where somebody can buy it.”