Music: O Brother's Wise Father

How the tall, taciturn T Bone Burnett taught the music industry a lesson. And here comes Chapter 2

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That's not quite true. Burnett has no problem cozying up to National Public Radio. NPR's member stations make up 6% of all American radio outlets (by contrast, Top 40 stations are just 4%), but major labels consider their audiences too finicky and too old to be ideal consumers. Burnett seduced NPR with O Brother's old-time sounds, and the member stations promoted the album feverishly, transforming it into the musical totem of a mature counterculture. Burnett visited the NPR national convention in May and brought along Ralph Stanley; NPR stations are now playing Stanley's new album.

Major labels could copy DMZ's strategy, but Burnett doubts they will. "They're supertankers," he says. "We're like a little speedboat." If the majors do invade his turf, they still have to find the right music for the market, and that's where Burnett has his greatest advantage. "After all these years of watching the culture," says Burnett, "I just need to catch a glimpse of something. I know when something's good."

He also knows how to make something good. For the Ya-Ya sound track, Burnett spent months going through his incalculable record collection ("Collections," he says. "They're spread all over Los Angeles in storage spaces, houses, studios ...") and doing research to come up with an entertaining Louisiana-mix tape. In addition to tracks by Mahalia Jackson, Slim Harpo and Blind Uncle Gaspard (you don't know Blind Uncle Gaspard?), Burnett found Mark and Ann Savoy, Cajun music's performing keepers of the flame, and recorded a new string arrangement for Richard and Linda Thompson's Dimming of the Day. Then, because he could, he got Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill to throw in some new material too.

For music-loving adults annoyed by radio and bewildered by MP3s, Burnett provides taste and authenticity--a mass product that feels tailored to the individual. Never mind that DMZ has a distribution deal with Sony. "We want to remind people," says Burnett, "that there's a person choosing this music."

There are rap and contemporary-rock albums in DMZ's future, but succeeding with throwback fare clearly appeals to Burnett's contrarian nature. While the industry churns out aborted Next Big Things, Burnett will dig through his collections for an upcoming Cold Mountain sound track and put the finishing touches on a Tony Bennett album. "I don't need to build a media empire," says Burnett. "I just want to put out some good records for a while."

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