Home #Hwoodtimes T Bone Burnett Gives AMERICANAFEST 2022 Keynote Speech

T Bone Burnett Gives AMERICANAFEST 2022 Keynote Speech

Good morning. I would like to begin this morning by playing you a video of the Russian music artist, Olena UUTAi, singing Blessing of Nature.

That was the musicians’ job early on. Musicians have been creating virtual worlds since before we had the technology of language. We sang to each other like dolphins or whales for thousands of years before we invented language. Each technological evolution since language has been an imitation and a miniaturization of the gift of music to create unique dimensions.


I am grateful to the Americana Music Association for inviting me here today to talk about an esoteric subject that I hope will be of interest to you, and to- with your permission- tell you a personal story.

I want to start with a quote from Chuck D- “Art has no rules.”

I want to follow that with a quote from Marshall McLuhan- “A medium surrounds a previous medium and turns the previous medium into an art form.”

And a quote from Barnett Newman- “Time passes over the tip of the pyramid.”

Those last two quotes, I have carried with me since school, and those thoughts have helped me survive fifty some odd years of show business. And as I’ve made the rounds, I’ve seen them validated over and over again.

Chuck D did what he does so well- he got to the point.

But more on and of that later.

In the meantime, I would like to begin this brief story of my life in the arts, leaving out almost everything but the most fitting parts, and please forgive me for talking about myself at all, even if only to hold myself up as a bad example. I will just say that I am grateful to have been very lucky in my life, and leave it at that.

I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. While Fort Worth is called Cowtown, by the time we got there, the cows were long gone, and it was an art, music, and golf town in reverse order. My friends growing up were not only musicians, like the late, great Stephen Bruton, who played banjo in a high school band called The Brazos River Ramblers and electric guitar in Buddy Holly/Chuck Berry  bands we had together, but also painters and print makers and photographers and filmmakers and architects. We called our loose group of friends and collaborators, Los Creativos.

Los Creativos had, at the time, a patron named Jim Meeker, who had a house full of paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha and others, and would have weekends when they and Kris Kristofferson and Billy Swan and Donnie Fritts, and filmmakers and writers and friends of Meeker from all over the world would get together and exchange notes. Bruton ended up playing guitar with Kris for the rest of his life.

When I graduated from high school in 1965, I bought a recording studio with a couple of friends. It had been started by Clifford Herring in the late 1930s and had been where Hey Baby and a lot of other Texas music had been recorded over three decades.

I want to say here that I am a musician. I bought a studio to write and record music. I am not an audiophile. I care nothing for sonic purity, or even know what that is, if it is anything at all. I have spent my entire life caring about what sounds good- what instruments sound good acoustically and what electronic equipment sounds good. But as far as the music we make with those tools, as much as I care about how the music sounds, I care as much about how it feels.

All of the equipment in that studio, from the Neumann U47 microphones to the LA2A limiters were Class A electronics, the current of the HiFi era. All of that electronic equipment is still in use and highly prized today, in fact is many times more expensive to buy now as it was when it was new. All of that equipment is still state of the art.

In that studio, we had three great sounding Altec Lansing custom monitors, an 8 channel Altec 250 Control Console, Ampex four track, three track, two track, and mono tape recorders, and a Neumann AM32B lathe. I began cutting acetates on that lathe in 1965.

When I first moved to Los Angeles to produce records in 1967, I worked at what was then called Continental Sound, which was in the same building as Doug Sax’s Mastering Lab. We did direct to disc recording between the two studios, and I learned a lot about cutting acetates from Doug Sax.

From those days until now- in fact, since the first recording of music on wax cylinder in 1889 of Johannes Brahms playing his Hungarian Dance No. 1- the best sounding transcriptions have been acetates. For the whole time I’ve been recording music, artists have lamented that vinyl copies don’t sound nearly as good as the acetate original.

For those who are not familiar with acetates, they are the prototype discs that are made as the first step in the process of making vinyl records.

Acetates are the cleanest, deepest sounding medium, but, they are very soft, and they degrade quickly, beginning with the first play.  Gravity pressing the stylus into the groove creates friction which creates  heat which melts the nitrocellulose painted surface of the aluminum disc.

There is great skill and touch and careful listening involved in cutting an acetate. It is not merely a mechanical process. There is art in it. In the old days of HiFi, the cutting of the acetate was the mastering process. In the days when music was distributed primarily in vinyl, the acetate was the master disc.

So as a first step, you make acetates until you have one that sounds exactly as you want the record to sound. After you have played that disc in order to select it, as it has been compromised by being played, you make another disc to those same specifications, and that unplayed acetate becomes the source of all other discs.

The first step in the process of making all the other discs is to make a negative of the acetate by electroplating it with silver, which destroys the acetate. The process then goes back and forth, positive and negative, a few times before it becomes a vinyl record.

All vinyls are copies of- and are several generations removed from- the original acetate.

In fifty seven years of careful listening, the first play of an acetate is still the best a recording ever sounds and the best it ever feels.


Recorded music is a form of art. It could be said that in the United States, it is our leading art form. Certainly, we have spread our message of innovation and freedom around the world with the extraordinary library of music we have invented, created, and recorded.

However, as recorded music evolved in the last century, standards of excellence in sound were achieved which have been steadily diminished as distribution technologies were shifted from analogue to digital, from tape or vinyl copies to digital copies to digital streaming. Each evolution brought a lowering of audio standards.


In 1935, Walter Benjamin wrote an influential essay called, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, examining the way the process of mechanical reproduction devalues the uniqueness of an object of art, and describing how in that process the artistic authenticity of the artifact and its cultural authority are diminished.

The way that works out in practice is as follows:

The most profound- the most valuable- experience of listening to music is to be in a room with the musician as the music is being made. The next is to hear a skillfully made, first generation, high fidelity recording played back over a high fidelity system and monitors.

After that, there are many generations of experiences from the best- acetate and magnetic tape, down to vinyl, down to CD, down to various degrees of compressed audio formats, and by the time you get to the satellites and the streams, you are a long way from the the deep experience- the authority- of listening to a musician- the author of the music- playing in the room with you.

Not that long ago, Gillian Welch told me that she had one night gotten frustrated trying to listen to Astral Weeks on CD, and had gone downstairs to her turntable. She said that when she put on the vinyl, she could hear everything she needed to know to be able to play that music.

That is a mystery of art.

To me, art and religion and science are all the same thing- all parts of the same thing- a search for meaning, for transcendence. I view making music, making art, making films as holy. I view the art of record making as holy.


What I have always tried to do when recording an artist is to be as faithful as possible- as close as possible- to the actual event taking place in the room. High Fidelity.

The reason for high fidelity recording is to give the listener the most authoritative- the closest- experience of the musician and the music as possible.

I am grateful to have learned the aesthetics of sound from Bill Putnam and Al Schmidt and Tom Dowd and Allen Sides and the masters of high fidelity from the last century. They set standards which have held to this day, from which we have all benefited greatly, and which we should take care to uphold. It has been a lifelong mission to adhere to the standards set by those geniuses. To me, high fidelity recording is an ethical question.


Meanwhile, recording artists have had the value of what we do determined for us under the shorter and shorter term technologies of mass production and distribution by organizations, governments, broadcasters, distributors, streamers, and others, but we have not had a way to find the economic value of an individual work of art.

The most valuable- the most profound- experience of a painting is to stand in front of the painting- to see the actual colors and lines and shapes, to be able to see inside the painting, to see the hand of the artist.

The most valuable- the most authoritative- experience of music is to be in the room with the musician as she or he is making it. Each step removed from that experience lessens the intensity and the intimacy of those experiences.

So here is a chronology of the diminishing of the experience of listening to music that has taken place over the last century and a half.

During the age of mechanical reproduction, starting in the late 1800’s, we have gone from being in the room with the music; to recording with smoke from an oil lamp on paper; to wax cylinders and discs; to shellac (still, by the way, a great sounding though brittle medium); to tape and vinyl during the apex of high fidelity in the 1950s and 1960s; to the sampling degradation of the CD; to the literal sonic collapse of the compressed audio of mp3, et cetera; to the torrent of streaming that is listened to on devices- phones and other computers- in which music is included as an afterthought, at best. And during that time, the value of recorded music has been commodified to zero.

I would like to add parenthetically at this point that while we in the audience were sold the fiction that we have been getting music for free, we have actually been paying with our souls- our privacy and our autonomy as human beings- as the cultural programming that began with print, radio, film, and television in the last century has now been automated, personalized, and targeted in the World Wide Web, but that is a much longer and most important conversation that we all have to have. I will briefly say here that the digital utopians- the surveillance capitalists- who began by commodifying music, are at this point, commodifying humans.

Now, forty years later, the standard of compressed audio that most people have been listening to for the last twenty some odd years is the equivalent of a mimeograph of a Xerox of a Polaroid of  a photograph of a painting. And, it is so far removed from the hand of the artist that it is difficult, and most times impossible, to know the provenance of anything.

With the collapse of standards that we have all experienced in the digital transition, and with digital technology turning over every ten years, it is not surprising that vinyl- a medium introduced in 1930 and a standard that has held for decades- has had the strong resurgence it has.


So how do we further a world of recorded music with authority- with aesthetic value- and a way of earning a living for the authors of that aesthetic value?

Let’s circle back here to Marshall McLuhan, who said that a medium surrounds a previous medium and turns the previous medium into an art form, as movies did with novels, as television did with movies, as the internet has done with television, and as digital has done with analogue.

Several years ago, we realized that since we had stopped developing analogue sound technology in the 1980s when we began developing digital sound technology, there had been thirty years of scientific advances with which to re-address analogue sound.

Looking into those advances, the first question we asked was- What is the best sounding medium? The answer was, without hesitation, the acetate.

The second question was- has science given us any new tools to improve an acetate?

Since acetates are vulnerable to heat caused by the friction of the needle dragging through the groove, we looked into nano techniques NASA uses to protect parts of the space station from the direct heat of the sun, and Apple uses to protect the glass on their phones.

With those techniques, we have developed a new analogue medium which we call an Ionic Disc. We have played these discs thousands of times without a loss of quality. In fact, expert listeners have said that the discs sound better as they are played.

The atoms thicks ionic deposition shields the disc from heat, which melts the acetate, and from static electricity, which attracts dust, which causes pops and clicks.

And with reduced static electricity, the stylus moving through the groove cleans the groove, so the disc is self-cleaning. We have observed that at times clicks and tics develop from various sources, but they are cleared and disappear as the disc gets played.

We have discs we have played a thousand times that are dead quiet.

There is none of the surface noise of vinyl records.

Acetates are, and have been for seventy five years, the best sounding medium.  An acetate protected and sealed by ionic deposition – our Ionic Disc – is the pinnacle- the ne plus ultra, in a Latin phrase I have just learned- of recorded sound.


So now, let’s return to Barnett Newman’s principle that time passes over the tip of the pyramid. By that he meant that there is a lot of room on the sides of the pyramid to put things, but gravity presses any object placed on them down to the sand. If you put something on the very tip, however, it stays there.

He demonstrated this concept with his Broken Obelisk sculptures, one of which you can see in the picture we have just texted to your phones. I’m just kidding. It is here.

Last year, Bob Dylan and I got together and recorded six songs- Blowin’ in the Wind, Gotta Serve Somebody, Masters of War, Simple Twist of Fate, The Times They are A Changing, and Not Dark Yet. 

We decided to sell them one at a time on this new archival medium we created, one song on one side of one ten inch acetate that we have been able to protect with an ionic deposition.

The goal was to put something on the tip of the pyramid.

We didn’t have any idea what one of those would sell for, but we knew it would sell for more than .001 cents divided by a billion, or whatever the extreme calculus of the current algorithm is.

Last July, we sold one of those discs for just under a million eight hundred thousand dollars  American.

We are now having inquiries about private sales of the other five discs.

While we have all been conditioned to see life though the lens- and under the terms- of mass production and mass culture, these IONIC ORIGINAL discs are hand made. They literally cannot be mass produced. They are expensive and time consuming to make.

We can make one or ten or a hundred, but we will never be able to make millions of them. For the record, there is only one acetate factory in the world, and there are only hundreds, not thousands and certainly not millions of blank acetates to be used for production in existence and available at any one time.

But with success, we will be able to begin coating vinyl records, and we are researching new materials with less environmental impact which hold the promise of being more durable than vinyl.


So moving forward, there are these concerns- one is that digital reproduction of music is less aesthetically involving and neurologically more difficult to listen to than analogue- not a great set of circumstances for musicians.

Another is that different people on the World Wide Web have taken our stuff and have distributed it without our permission and without compensation, until the provenance of everything is difficult or impossible to know.

The requirements and combination of mechanical reproduction, mass culture, and automation have put artists in a political situation in which they have to curry favor with the audience, often to appease the audience, and in which self-promotion becomes more time consuming than making art.

That is not in the best interest of the artists or the audience.

In the meantime, artists will continue to work in analogue sound. Music is analogue. Our voices are analogue, violins are analogue, drums are analogue.

We have CGI, but people still paint on canvas. Analogue and digital coexist. Digital is a mighty editing platform. Analogue sounds and feels better but is nowhere near as flexible. Digital is better for working across media. Analogue is better for listening to music. Artists will use both to their best advantage. Digital didn’t replace analogue. A medium surrounds a previous medium and turns the previous medium into an art form.

We have computer generated people, so to speak, but we still have films and photographs and lithographs and oil paintings.

We have the internet but we still have television, and we have television, but we still have movies and radio and books.

The thought that we will digitize all of that, leave it behind, and live on Mars in some simulated mega verse/virtual crypto world with the only connection to each other mediated, allowed, recorded, and surveilled by and under the control of a STEM educated semi automaton, and I won’t mention any names, who is under the control of an Artificial Intelligence, is not one that fills me with hope.

But let’s us artists imagine a better future.  Or at least a funnier one.


Which brings us back to Chuck D.  Art has no rules.

To emulate Chuck D and get to the point:

We created IONIC Original discs to provide music artists with the ability to work at full autonomy on the best sounding medium in an archival form.

Additionally, recording artists have had the economic value of what we do determined for us under the shorter and shorter term technologies of mass production and distribution by organizations, governments, broadcasters, distributors, streamers, and others, but we have not had a way to find the value of an individual work of art.

If we are able to help establish a music space in the fine arts, through the making of these archival Ionic Original discs, musicians will be able to find a real economic value for their work, not a value dictated to them by the requirements of mass production and mass consumerism.

For those who have subscribed to the idea that music only has value if it is shared with others, while there is truth in that, it is not the truth.

I have spent many hours and years listening to musicians playing unobserved, and I can tell you that music had great value in the moment, and those moments are more valuable to me than any other experience I’ve had of music.

One afternoon when I was working on a record with a band of Booker T, Jim Keltner, and Edgar Meyer, all master musicians, I asked Edgar what he had been working on. He said he had been working on these Bach cello pieces that he played completely in thumb position on double bass. When I asked Edgar to play one of them, he took off one of his loafers, put the endpin of his bass into the heel of the loafer, and bowed a twelve minute version of Bach that left everyone in the room in tears.

That moment would not have been more beautiful or powerful if a billion people heard it. In fact, it would have been a billion times less beautiful, because the overwhelming power of the moment was in our proximity to the artist. By the time a billion people heard it, it would be some terrible sounding nineteenth generation corrupted file some anonymous person ripped and put on some outdated, unregulated so called file sharing application like YouTube.

One of my goals as a record artist has, for my whole life, been to put the listener as close to the artist as possible.

The chasm between the way the music we record actually sounds and the way it is heard through the media has grieved me for years.

When CDs were first introduced, I was working with the great audio engineer Allen Sides at the old, classic United/Western studio in Hollywood, which was built by the father of modern recording, Bill Putnam. Allen was Bill’s protege.

I forget which record it was, but we had worked for weeks getting this record as deep and powerful and full range as possible. We had mixed to a 1/4 inch Ampex ATR mastering tape machine and the stuff sounded killer. But this was the beginning of the CD phase, and the label told us to convert the mix to 1630 video tape to begin the process of making what was called at the time a compact disc.

When we got that CD back from the record company, we compared it to the tape master, and were stunned by how it sounded. When we inquired, we learned that after we sent them the 1630, the music had gone through a half dozen different work stations before it was turned into a CD, and the CD had lost the aura– as Walter Benjamin put it- of the music we had recorded. It sounded brittle and harsh. It sounded small. The disc was round, but it sounded square.

Not that anyone else would ever do anything like this, but if you want to take a listen to the kind of thing I am talking about, see if you can find one of the Beatles CDs from 1987, the first CDs released, then listen, if you can find it, to one of the 1/4 inch reel to reel tapes they used to sell back in those days. (Those tapes, by the way, are killer.) Or compare the CD to a vinyl record.

It is my belief that, if humanity is going to be saved, it is the artists who are going to do that, and we are going to do that by imagining a better future. The human race needs a good dream.

So, in order to put more power into the hands of record artists, we developed a highest sound quality, durable acetate disc that artists can use to make unique originals of their work that will keep its pristine sound for a thousand plays.

With this technological advance, artists will have control of their work.

Most people who have heard the Ionic Original of Blowin’ in the Wind have been deeply moved by Bob’s performance, and by how close he sounds to the listener. Hard boiled type cultural observers have been moved to tears. Often.

At the moment, these discs are expensive to make, so we have introduced them into the one of one world of fine arts. As I said earlier, these discs will never be mass produced. Making them is as much art as science, very much akin to making wine. There is taste, touch, and time, and experience and knowledge involved.

As with wine, the process cannot be automated. Not at the moment.

But soon, we will be able to make limited editions of these discs should that be something someone wanted to do.

And there are many other possibilities in this advance such as, because we can put different colors in the coatings, we will have the ability to store data- art, credits, video, holograms, et cetera, in the ionic coating.

I am not, however, technical, and I will leave that up to the scientists. I don’t know where this innovation will lead.

For me, the making of these Ionic Original discs is about the art of recorded music and the art of listening at the highest and deepest level.

One thing we are not trying to do is shake any money out of the general public.

We are not trying to replace or take anything away from anyone. We are only adding. We are adding something that didn’t exist before. We are adding something that- if we are successful in giving artists more autonomy and more power, less need to meet the demands of mass marketing and overcome the atomization of mass culture- will be of benefit to everyone.

Perhaps you will think of me kindly as a time traveler from a different technological age, an old man, talking about a venerable technology- a standard that has held solid for seventy five years- saying-  you are welcome to enjoy my lawn. It is analogue, and there are trees and grass and music, and while you can, of course, always make music for free if you want to, you don’t have to.

Instead, you are free, to make art, without rules.

I’ll leave you with one last quote. To live outside the law, you must be honest.

Thank you.