Jukebox: Music, musicians make ‘Crazy Heart’ ring true

When I saw “Crazy Heart” on Sunday with my valentine, Ellie, the movie felt true and real to me in l
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When I saw “Crazy Heart” on Sunday with my valentine, Ellie, the movie felt true and real to me in light of what I’ve seen onstage and backstage. It also annoyed me in ways I’ll tell you about a little later.

The crushing pressures of the music business bore down in every conversation that cynical, unruly Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) cursed through with his manager and anyone who hired him. The way that fans’ loyalty allows country stars to remain stars, sort of, past the age when rockers retire, felt as touching as the wary but warm way new star Tommy Sweet (a surprisingly good Colin Farrell) showed how much he valued old Blake as his mentor.

It was hard to watch how Blake’s Bad-ness demonstrated that talent makes monsters of some people and how they take advantage of others. But “Crazy Heart” also showed how talent will always get its way: The songs will get written, the shows will get played, no matter how messed up the songwriter/performer gets. My knowledge of addiction is fortunately all second-hand; yet its power became clear when Blake let it mess up the good thing he’d found with Jean Craddock, played by his fellow Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Even Bad Blake’s asleep-at-the-wheel car crash seemed real, and it reminded me of all the musicians who have died on the road and of a really sad half-remembered Albany rock ’n’ roll story. The Gary Windo Orchestra was to play a New Year’s Eve show at 288 Lark, and I’ll let 288 (and later, QE2) impresario Charlene Shortsleeve take up the story: “Gary and Knox [Chandler] were already at 288 and waiting for the other van to arrive when they got the call about the crash. The cello player was killed. I can’t remember her name but she was a great musician and a beautiful girl. They played that night in her honor and because they didn’t know what else to do.”

Musicians shortchanged

Getting back to “Crazy Heart,” the music is so solid that when I noticed that the musicians in the movie were the last contributors listed in the credits, it really offended me. In fact, they’re not listed at all in the credits on the IMDb site — which does list production assistants and an intern. I mean, what the hell?

Although it was shot low-budget style in just 24 days and most participants felt it was headed directly to DVD without wide-screen showings at all, “Crazy Heart” (the film, and/or its soundtrack) is good enough to become this year’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as a musico-cinematic phenomenon whose acclaim I consider well-earned. In addition to much-praised performances by Bridges and Gyllenhaal, the movie is good in large part because the music is — and those who played it, onscreen and off, should be acknowledged better.

Stellar sideman

“Crazy Heart” also has a compelling back story that becomes evident only if you investigate the meaning of the last line of the film’s credits: “This film is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Bruton.”

“Who?” you may ask.

Born Turner Stephen Bruton, and credited as such on some of the many albums he produced or played on by such notables as Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hal Ketchum and more, Bruton was a journeyman guitarist and actor and the man T Bone Burnett, a producer of “Crazy Heart,” turned to for help making the music.

While Bruton worked on the music with Burnett, he was separated from his wife and headed for divorce while also battling cancer and fighting over his estate. He died last year at 60, before the movie was released, before it could bring him a welcome late-career boost.

If that’s not a country-music story line, then I’ve never heard one.

Bruton was Burnett’s lifelong friend and musical compadre who, at 14, taught Burnett the haunting song “O Death” that became the centerpiece of “O Brother.” Bruton was also touring guitarist with Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and others, and a valued producer and session player. He also became a movie actor after Kristofferson — who Bridges closely resembles as Bad Blake — brought him into the cast of “A Star is Born.” Bruton said that Kristofferson likes to have other musicians on the set as B.S. detectors; and I think some of the lines in “Crazy Heart” hit so hard because authentic roadhouse scufflers like Bruton were around the project.

Bruton never became a star, exactly; he was always the stalwart and indispensable supporting player, though his solos onstage brought him some time in the spotlight, and he released five solo albums.

He played around Austin with an all-star crew of fellow sidemen dubbed the Resentments, also featuring the similarly underrated Jon Dee Graham, who sometimes plays in Escovedo’s road band. Escovedo’s “Gravity” album may be the best music either Escovedo or Bruton ever made; however, the “Texas Sheikhs” album stands pretty tall, too.

Troubadour Geoff Muldaur launched the project to distract Bruton, already ill; and yet the album is full of joy. When Muldaur played Caffe Lena last year, he seemed still grief-stricken by Bruton’s death.

Like most sidemen, Bruton was a generous guy: He knew his job was to make the star alongside him look good, and he did it well. So it’s no surprise that some fans think his employers took advantage of him throughout his career, or that he gladly chimed in on “Ted Greene Remembered,” a tribute album to an even more obscure yet also fantastic guitarist.

As it happens, so does Tommy Emmanuel, who plays at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Saturday.

Great guitars

When my daughter Pisie texted me Monday night asking, “Who’s the greatest guitar player in the world?” I texted back, “Maybe Richard Thompson, or Derek Trucks or Bill Frisell or Frank Vignola or John McLaughlin.” She texted, “What about Steve Vai?” So I replied, “Pretty good, and then there’s Jeff Beck and Larry Coryell and Buddy Guy” — and maybe I should have started with those three guys, with Buddy first.

And maybe I would have put Tommy Emmanuel on the list if I had understood him better then. When I caught up via YouTube on Tuesday, Emmanuel’s playing floored me: amazing dexterity, dazzling counterpoint, totally fresh melodic conception — even on songs we’ve all heard a million times — driving rhythms and an infectious joyfulness.

Emmanuel got that way by starting to play at age 4, touring Australia with his parents and siblings in a family band, playing with everybody good across the continent, studying with Chet Atkins, playing thousands of Nashville sessions and tackling every kind of music that’s even remotely guitar-able.

Show time for Tommy Emmanuel on Saturday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (30 Second St., Troy) is 8 p.m. when fellow Australian Anthony Snape opens.

Tickets are $34, $29, $25 and $20. Phone 273-0038 or visit www.troy musichall.org.

Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected].

Categories: Life and Arts

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