Thursday marks 10 years since Austin lost Stephen Bruton, the renowned musician and producer who toured with Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and others. Bruton died of cancer on May 9, 2009.
Part of his legacy in Austin is the Sunday night shows at the Saxon Pub by the Resentments, a band he founded in 1998; those shows are currently featured as our Austin360 Residency of the Month. The Resentments perform this Sunday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Saxon.
To mark the anniversary, we're republishing the obituary that ran on page A1 of the American-Statesman in May 2009.
By Michael Corcoran
Although his credits as a guitarist, producer and songwriter were highly impressive, there was so much more to Austin music icon Stephen Bruton, who lost a 21/2-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, and 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 a while, and 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.
"Stephen wanted to work," said Cameron Strang, president of New West Records, which released three critically acclaimed 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. 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. "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 also was 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 led by example.
As a producer, Bruton had a way of taking command that made you want to follow him, said Gilmore, whose Bruton-produced 1991 album "After Awhile" took Gilmore out of the honky-tonks 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."
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 of years later, Kristofferson, fresh from the cover of Time magazine, asked Bruton if he was interested in playing guitar in his band. "Man, that's all I'm interested in," Bruton replied.
"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 1993 "Across the Borderline" LP.
Raitt has a show tonight in Austin at Bass Concert Hall. It could be one of the toughest she'll ever have to get through, as she and Bruton were extremely close.
Bruton appeared in some of Raitt's videos, but he'd had a lot of practice acting. His association with Kristofferson beefed up his resume with roles in such films as "A Star Is Born," "Heaven's Gate" and "Songwriter" (written by Bud Shrake, who died Friday). A handsome "silver fox" with a sly grin, Bruton also had roles in "The Alamo" and "Miss Congeniality" and played the bandleader in the TV series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."
Off-the-cuff comedy was another of Bruton's talents you won't find in liner notes, but he could 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's arrival, 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.
Bruton was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in early 2007 and went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments from March to April that year. He worked as bandleader for the Freescale Semiconductor "Road To Austin" show in May 2007 at Auditorium Shores.
"I've never had an experience with anything like this," Bruton said at the time, looking gaunt from the cancer treatments. But he said playing again with special guests Kristofferson, Raitt and McClinton would do his spirits well.
McClinton and Bruton go back to the '60s 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.
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.
In that 2007 interview, Bruton proudly pulled out a photo of himself and Kristofferson playing their first gig together, in 1971 at the Golden Bear in San Rafael, Calif.
"Touring with Kris was the greatest experience," Bruton said, looking at the photo. "I feel like we went through life together."
Bruton's funeral will be in Fort Worth; arrangements are pending. He is survived by his wife, Austin photographer Mary Bruton.