From Sideman to Soundman

Stephen Bruton

by Mindy LaBernz

Tom Petty's not gonna show. "I'm outta here," snaps a 25ish redhead as she stomps her last cigarette into Antone's dirty concrete floor. The other Casino El Camino refugees mumble in agreement and start slamming their half-finished beers. Rumor had it Petty would be sitting in with this Stephen Bruton character tonight. The only way to save face this late in the game is to bolt before the show finishes.

As they flounce out, a member of the herd tentatively hangs behind. Bruton has eased into a poignant ballad which has been seducing the reluctant fan line by line. Eyeing him warily, she tries to place the songwriter. It's Willie Nelson, she decides finally. Relieved she's falling not for the lyrics of some local hack, but the Master, she languishes in the final moments of the song: And now it's later than we think, but still this isn't through -- this gettin' over you. As Bruton exits the stage and makes his way past her, she bravely taps him to ask -- just to be sure -- who wrote that song? Oblivious to the debilitating effect he's had on the poor girl, his cloudy blue eyes meet her damp ones, and he dispassionately offers in the loveliest of drawls, "Oh, I did."

Such is the grace with which Bruton stops you dead in your tracks. Go ahead, have your preconceptions about this 46-year-old guitar player-cum-songwriter-cum-producer. Hell, he's been a side guy for years -- underestimate him while you're at it. But don't dare listen to his songs with your heart unarmed. That's where he's lethal. Willie Nelson, who packs the same heat, knows it; he covered the aforementioned, chick-slaying "Getting Over You" on Across the Borderline. The Highwaymen -- Willie, plus Kris, Waylon and Johnny -- know it too; they covered two of Bruton's songs on this year's The Road Goes on Forever. Musically he's got ears for the truth, and he tells it without batting an eye.

"I'm not the greatest this or the greatest that," says Bruton, with characteristic humility. "If you just stand up there and tell the truth, you're gonna be okay. The truth gets louder and louder."

This affinity for honest, musical expression is not the pretentious raving of an imploding rock-star mind. Bruton's learned what he knows about truth by serving time, not only as a roving session guy, but under the tutelage of Heartache's royalty, the Bonnie Raitts and Kris Kristoffersons of the world, both of whom he toured with for years; Kristofferson for 13 and Raitt on the Luck of the Draw tour. In fact, his acting "stretch" as Kristofferson's guitarist in the Austin-filmed Songwriter brought this Fort Worth boy back home to Texas in the early Eighties.

"I remember the first time I showed [Kristofferson] a song and he didn't want to rewrite it," Bruton reminisces about the occasional late-night songwriters' exchange from his younger days in Kristofferson's band. "He goes, `That's great.' It was like getting my diploma."

Living a few of Kristofferson's songs may very well have helped prepare him to write affecting ones himself, while the consistent affirmation from his peers and exemplars helped build confidence in them. Antone's Records reinforced the opinions of his contemporaries by releasing his debut What It Is in 1993, and this year's Right on Time. It was Jimmie Dale Gilmore, though, who paid him what some would consider the ultimate compliment. He asked him to produce his record.

"I had this feeling because of the way he played that he automatically had a sense of my music," Gilmore explains. Bruton himself claims not to know why Gilmore took a chance on a novice. He'd spent years in studios, years on the road, and even years in his parents' record store, but never had he held the reins before. Seems Gilmore knew of his studio experience and just had a feeling. The album they made together, 1991's After Awhile, garnered sick amounts of critical acclaim and got Gilmore his Elektra record deal. Thus began a critically lauded production career that has included Loose Diamonds, Sue Foley, and every critic's security blanket, Alejandro Escovedo.

Escovedo had suspicions that Bruton was either a narc or a drug dealer when he met him as a customer at Waterloo Records. ("You know, the running shorts and the RayBans," quips Escovedo.) "Somebody told him I was an L.A. session guy which is probably the worst thing you could tell Alejandro," says Bruton about his friend's initial reaction toward him. After getting to know him as a neighbor and customer -- and approving of the records he bought -- Escovedo asked Bruton to produce his record. "I didn't know Alejandro from Adam, but I liked him, so I said, `Sure, man, I'll do it.'"

This story, too, has a happy ending. Escovedo's 1992 debut Gravity received four stars in Rolling Stone and earned both he and Bruton a much-deserved shot of credibility in the arm. Bruton, of course, tries to deflect accolades from himself to Escovedo, claiming, "All I did was try to get it down on tape to where it was the truth. I definitely had a lot of involvement with it, but it's Alejandro's album." He says the same about their second collaboration, 1994's Thirteen Years.

Escovedo dismisses Bruton's modesty. "I think of these records as our records," he says in absolute earnest. In fact, the first album may not have been made without a little help from his friend. At a point in his life when a career in music seemed futile and trivial at best, Escovedo was convinced by Bruton to get his stuff on tape. "He got me to respect the songs," explains Escovedo, "and he convinced me to document them." Watching them work in the studio on Escovedo's new album, the level of collaboration is more than apparent, as are the reasons that Bruton has become, in a few short years, a producer about town. He's a diplomat, a grand communicator, and most importantly a divinely musical creature.

In his rolling chair, Bruton scoots back and forth from his acoustic guitar to Hit Shack's
24-track board, all the while coaching Ponty Bone through his accordion part on a light, mid-tempo song. Bruton's communication is swift and concise ("I need a little ritard on that arpeggioed bit at the end"), honest ("That's mo' betta, Ponty, but we need it mo' betta"), and a bit crafty ("Jay, he's still way too on top. Hey, Ponty, let's listen back and tell me what you think").

"I'll tell you what it is, I'll tell you exactly what it is," says Bruton later, about the trick to producing. "A lot of times you get people to play what you're hearing and make them think they thought of it. And you know what? They did in a certain sense, because they're executing what you want to hear."

The secret that Bruton would never admit to knowing is that the producer has to actually hear something in the first place. He writes his success off to hiring good engineers like Jay Hudson or Dave McNair without whom he couldn't even unlock the doors to the studio let alone run the board. Or he blames his good luck on the consummate professionals he imports to knock out tracks in a timely and musical manner.

The fact is that all Bruton embodies as a producer can be found in his own music. He treats his lyrics with the aw-shucks sensitivity that make women swoon, and men return to memories they'd just as soon forget. His history as a sideman has nurtured a reserve that surrenders his ego to the song, whether it be his own or one he's producing.

As he fixates on the final accordion pass out of the song, it's plain that Bruton has a woman's understanding that cultivating beauty takes time. Do we want to know that the gentle accordion flourish that closes the song took an hour to get right? No, but when he's finally satisfied with the pass, and the choppy waters have been calmed and smoothed with the final accordion trill fluttering like the teary eyelashes of a girl stung by a ballad, Bruton leans back with a satisfied stretch, and his handsome face breaks into a grin. He turns to the girl on the couch behind him who listens to the final take for the final time. As was promised, with each listen, the truth -- in Escovedo's song, in Ponty's playing, and in Bruton's eyes -- has gotten louder and louder. n

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