Monday, May 11, 2009

OBT: Stephen Bruton

Stephen Bruton 1948- 2009

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Although his credits as a guitarist, producer and songwriter were highly impressive, there was so much more to Austin icon Stephen Bruton, who lost a two and a half year battle with throat cancer Saturday morning in Los Angeles.

“He was one of the bright spots in the lives of anyone who was close to him,” said Kris Kristofferson, who hired a 22-year-old Bruton to be his guitar player in 1971. The gig lasted 17 years and made the pair as close as brothers. Bruton also played in the bands of Bonnie Raitt and Delbert McClinton, plus he produced career-defining albums by Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marcia Ball..

“I feel fortunate that I was able to get back to L.A. last night and say farewell,” Kristofferson said. “He finally knew he was going, after fighting it so hard for so long. I said I would see him again down the road, probably sooner than later.” The two talked for awhile, then, late Friday night, Bruton said he had to go to sleep. He never woke up. He was 60.

“Stephen Bruton was the soul of Texas music,” T-Bone Burnett said in a statement Saturday. “This is an incalculable loss. He was my oldest friend and I loved him like a brother. I learned more from him than I can say.”

Burnett flew Bruton to L.A. in a private jet about two months ago, knowing that playing the guitar in the studio would be great for Bruton’s spirits. “Stephen wanted to work,” said Cameron Strang, the president of New West, which released three Bruton solo LPs. Besides playing on a soundtrack produced by Burnett for the upcoming Jeff Bridges movie “Crazy Heart,” Bruton saw two highly regarded oncologists in L.A. and had initially showed signs of improvement, Strang said.

Back home in Austin, where the guitarist played every Sunday night with the Resentments at the Saxon Pub for several years, there was hope that Bruton would pull through. If anyone could beat cancer… Instead, a music community still reeling from Wednesday’s death of Willie Nelson’s beloved stage manager Poodie Locke, had to deal with another great loss.

‘We owe a lot to Stephen Bruton,” Saxon Pub owner Joe Ables said, speaking not only for his club on South Lamar, but Austin as a whole. “The word I think of when I think of Stephen is ‘respect.’ Everyone respected him as a man of talent and integrity. He was the guy you looked up to.”

He was also known as someone you could turn to in times of despair. After getting sober about 20 years ago, Bruton was there to help anyone who wanted to lead a life without drugs and alcohol. He didn’t preach, but inspired by example..

As a producer, Bruton had a way of taking command that made you want to follow him, said Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose Bruton-produced album “After Awhile” took Gilmore out of the honkytonks and into listening rooms and concert halls. “He was so important to me,” Gilmore said. “He had the right combination of genuine musicianship and organizational skill that made him such a great producer. Plus he was so much fun to work with.”

Off-the-cuff comedy was another of Bruton’s talents you won’t find in liner notes, but he could also take a joke. Once he was the best man at a wedding, but was the last one to arrive. As the couple waited patiently and the guests looked back at the entrance for Bruton, someone said ‘Turn on a movie camera and he’ll be here in two minutes” and everyone cracked up. Including Bruton, when he was told about it.

Raised on rhythm and blues and country in his family’s record store in Fort Worth, Turner Stephen Bruton was only 20 when he met budding songwriter Kristofferson in Fort Worth. A couple years later, the suddenly hot Kristofferson asked Bruton if he was interested in playing the guitar in his band. “Man, that’s all I’m interested in,” Bruton answered back.

“Kris was always so encouraging about my songwriting,” Bruton told the American-Statesman in 2007. Bruton co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album “Border Lord” and had his greatest writing thrill when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of Bruton’s “Getting Over You” on Nelson’s “Across the Borderline” LP.

Raitt has a show Sunday in Austin at the Bass Concert Hall. It could be one of the toughest she’ll ever have to get through, as she and Bruton were extremely close.

By the time he played a part in the video for Raitt’s “Thing Called Love,” Bruton was a bit of an acting veteran. Through his association with Kristofferson, the guitarist with the movie star looks beefed up his resume with roles in such films as “A Star Is Born,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “Songwriter’ (writen by Bud Shrake, who passed away yesterday). Bruton also had speaking roles in “The Alamo,” and “Miss Congeniality” and had a cameo as the band leader in the TV series ‘Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip.’

And then he got cancer. His wife Mary had a sore throat one day and she wanted to see what a normal throat looked like so she had Stephen say ‘ah,’ but his red and swollen tonsils looked even worse. He was diagnosed in December ‘06 and vowed to fight it with everything he had. Even though he was still feeling the exhausting effects of chemotherapy, he worked as band leader for the Freescale Semiconductor “Road To Austin” show in May 2007. Playing again with special guests Kristofferson, Raitt and McClinton seemed to rejuvenate “the Kid.”

McClinton and Bruton go back to 1965, when a 16-year-old Stephen and his older brother Sumter were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. McClinton would sometimes sit in on harp; white teenagers playing the blues in a black club and having a blast.

By the time he hooked up with Kristofferson, Bruton had an encyclopedic knowledge of guitar riffs. But his playing was never flashier than what the song called for. “He’s my all-time favorite guitar player,” Kristofferson said.

In that 2007 interview with the American Statesman, Bruton proudly pulled out a photo of him and Kristofferson backstage warming up for their first gig together, at the Golden Bear in San Rafael, Calif. in 1971. That was the moment Bruton became a professional musician.

“Touring with Kris was the greatest experience,” Bruton said, looking at the photo with a big smile. “I feel like we went through life together.”

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