The story behind the country music at the center of "Crazy Heart," the film for which Jeff Bridges is winning accolades for his portrayal of singer Bad Blake, would make a movie every bit as poignant as this tale of a down-but-not-entirely-out musician in desperate need of redemption.
The real-life tale would be a buddy movie about the friendship between two musicians whose lives charted divergent paths, one leading to multimillion-selling albums and multiple Grammy Awards, the other hewing closer to the hardscrabble life on the outskirts of fame as portrayed in "Crazy Heart."
Those buddies are T Bone Burnett — Hollywood's go-to music producer for anything involving American roots styles since "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" —and his childhood friend Stephen Bruton, a respected songwriter and guitarist who played with Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and many others, but who remained little known outside the roots-music cognoscenti.
Barely two weeks after completing the original music they wrote for "Crazy Heart," a collaboration Burnett remembers being filled with "a lot of laughter," Bruton died in May, finally losing his years-long battle with cancer.
"As soon as I got the word that we were actually going to go forward (with the movie), Stephen was my first phone call," Burnett, 62, said, settling his imposing 6-foot-4 frame into a black couch in the study of his Los Angeles house. "He spent the last 10 or 20 years of his life driving around in a Suburban. He drove around the country with his guitars and amps and clothes in the back."
In Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel, on which the movie is based, Blake drives a beat-up van, but a make and model similar to Bruton's was chosen for the film.
Burnett signed on as one of the movie's producers, and it was his participation that cemented Bridges' decision to take the role of a one-time country music legend reduced to playing remote gigs in bowling alleys and dive bars. Burnett ceded music supervisor duties to Bruton, who previously had composed and played music for other movies, and even had a few roles as an actor.
Bruton knew the Bad Blake lifestyle inside out, and he contributed some key elements to the film that weren't in the book. Cobb patterned the novel primarily on the life of veteran Texas singer and bandleader Hank Thompson, who died two years ago at age 82.
Bruton, however, is credited for an early scene in which Blake pulls into the parking lot of a bowling alley following a long haul on the road, steps out of his truck and empties a one-gallon water bottle that's allowed him to avoid time-wasting restroom stops.
"Everybody was talking about the Sparkletts bottle," Cobb, 62, said in a separate interview. "That was all Bruton. He said, 'Oh, you've gotta have a Sparkletts bottle.'"
Before Hollywood found Burnett, even before he carved out a career as an in-demand producer of albums by dozens of artists including Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, B.B. King and the Grammy-slathered duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — he toured as a singer-songwriter playing gigs similar to Bad Blake's.
"I was in a motel once called, I think, the Blackhawk Inn, somewhere in Iowa, and it turned out it was the motel that Cary Grant had died in," said Burnett. "It was like, wait a minute — Cary Grant didn't die in this motel, there's no possible way he ever even saw this motel. Nevertheless, apparently that's what happened.
"Doug Sahm, one of those characters (like Bad Blake), once wrote a song, the title of which was 'You Never Get Too Big and You Sure Don't Get Too Heavy That You Don't Have to Stop and Pay Dues Sometimes,'" Burnett said of the pioneering Tex-Mex rocker who led the Sir Douglas Quintet in the '60s and the Texas Tornados in the '80s and '90s.
Dues-paying is at the core of "Crazy Heart," and it's a theme that brought his thoughts back once again to Bruton.
"He was one of the funniest people in the world," Burnett said, still speaking of him at times in the present tense. "He's also a terrifically witty, brilliant songwriter, and we needed some witty, brilliant songs, or least something approaching that for this character."
'For the fun of it'
For Burnett, the whole experience of "Crazy Heart" constitutes an object lesson in honoring artistic passion instead of the financial bottom line.
"It was all done very much just to do it," said Burnett, who hardly needs pet projects to fill his spare time.
Having just produced Costello's acclaimed latest album, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," and leading the band on Costello's national tour, Burnett has a to-do list for the coming year that includes the release of new albums he's produced for Jakob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman, Robert Randolph and John Mellencamp.
In addition, he's overseeing an all-star recording of music written by Mellencamp and horror-meister Stephen King for "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a play with music that's gunning for Broadway.
And then there's "Tough Trade," a new series about three generations of country music stars, for which he's serving as executive music producer. It's set to premiere next year for EPIX, Viacom's new multiplatform entertainment service.
As for "Crazy Heart," which has collected Golden Globe nominations for Bridges' starring performance and for the theme song, "The Weary Kind," which Burnett wrote with upstart Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham, he noted that "nobody got paid; nobody thought anything was going to happen."
"It was for the fun of it, but I also felt we could do something good," Burnett said. "My philosophy is that if you do something good, it's got a shot. If you want to do something that's down the middle, the line forms on the right," another lusty laugh erupting.
"So you might as well just go left, right now, and make it good. Then you've got a wide open road in front of you."