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Lifelong friendship culminates with score

Score for 'Crazy Heart' was final project for Austin guitarist Stephen Bruton, who died in May.

Michael Corcoran
Austin musician Stephen Bruton, left, and record producer T-Bone Burnett, who grew up together in Fort Worth, have earned rave reviews for their score for 'Crazy Heart,' a film starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer. Bruton died of throat cancer in May.

It was 1960 in Fort Worth, and a couple of 12-year-old guys were in the T.H. Conn music store one Saturday afternoon — every Saturday afternoon — messing around with the various stringed instruments hanging from the walls. The shorter of the kids always went back to his favorite guitar, a beat-up Epiphone Texan acoustic, which had the sweetest tone he'd ever heard.

Finally, he brought it over to owner Woods Moore, and they talked for a while, with Moore scratching his chin for a long time before agreeing to a deal.

"Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth," 10-time Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett recalled of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. "He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper."

Nearly 50 years later, the lifelong friends have earned critical raves for their original film score to "Crazy Heart," a little film with big Oscar buzz starring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer with one good song — and one last chance — left in him.

"This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life," said Burnett, who is one of the movie's producers in addition to sharing music supervisor credit with Bruton. "When we won the L.A. Film Critics award, it was so sad for Stephen to not be there. This was really his film. I turned the music over to him."

Austinite Bruton died at 60 in May at Burnett's home in Los Angeles after a 21/2-year battle with throat cancer. Burnett and director Scott Cooper screened "Crazy Heart" for Bruton about two weeks before he died.

"We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that," said Burnett, 62, who called early raves for "Crazy Heart," which opened in Austin and 32 other cities Jan. 8, "the best of any movie I've ever worked on."

Bruton's older brother Sumter, who still runs the family's 53-year-old record store in Fort Worth, Record Town, laughed when he recalled his brother's tall friend from the '60s.

"T-Bone lived in the only house with a swimming pool in the neighborhood," Sumter Bruton said. "That's how I met him."

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early '70s, Burnett and Stephen Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt before recording his first of five solo albums in 1993. Burnett cemented his reputation as a producer with the multiplatinum touch on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack in 2000 and then seven years later topped it with "Raising Sand" by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Burnett became a West Coast music biz honcho; Bruton settled into the pace of Barton Hills, where for 20 years he lived, wrote songs, produced records and dressed for gigs at the Saxon Pub.

"We've always stayed in touch," Burnett said. "And when 'Crazy Heart' was a go, Stephen is the first person I called."

Although Bruton had been diagnosed with cancer in early 2007, Burnett said the hiring of Bruton for "Crazy Heart" had nothing to do with trying to raise the spirits of a sick friend.

"Stephen was just the right person for the job," Burnett said. "Through his experience, he knew more about who Bad Blake (the Jeff Bridges character) was than anyone else."

Before a song was written for the project, Burnett hosted five or six months of listening sessions at his Brentwood, Calif., house in 2008. Burnett, Bruton, Bridges and Cooper constructed a timeline of Blake's life leading up to the time covered by the film, when he's a 57-year-old alcoholic playing bowling alleys with pickup bands. Ryan Bingham, up for a Golden Globe on Sunday for best original song ("The Weary Kind"), also dropped in at times.

Bridges soaked in all the honky-tonk, blues, Western swing and Bob Dylan songs played during that prep time, just as his character would have growing up.

The sessions reminded Burnett of the hours he and Bruton would spend in Record Town, the store Bruton's father, a jazz drummer, opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957.

"Back then you couldn't order records unless you had a record store," Burnett said. "So Stephen could get, like, old blues and bluegrass records from the Library of Congress that nobody else could get." The teens would thumb through catalogs and then wait for records by Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin' Wolf to arrive.

At night, the underage pair and their friend Delbert McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch sax great King Curtis and slipping in some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb.

"From my point of view, Stephen embodied the soul of Texas music," Burnett said. "He went deep into what made it unique. I learned so much from him."

Asked what was it about Fort Worth that made it special, Burnett recalled a scene from "The Last Picture Show," when the main characters are sitting out by a desolate stock pond.

"The ground is gray and the water's gray and the trees are gray, and the Ben Johnson character says, 'Isn't this beautiful?'" Burnett said. "(Fort Worth) didn't seem like much to most people, but it was a magical place to us."

It's a town Bad Blake could've been from.

"Jeff (Bridges) looked to Stephen to keep him honest and believable at all times," Bruton's manager, Ken Kushnick, said. An Oscar favorite, Bridges is among those up for a Golden Globe award Sunday for best actor in a drama.

Estranged from his wife the last few months of his life, Bruton threw himself into the film, even making a few reality-heightening suggestions to Cooper during filming in Santa Fe, N.M. The Sparkletts bottle Bad Blake empties after a 300-mile nonstop drive — that touch came from Bruton. But his chief contribution was crafting such songs as "I Don't Know," "Somebody Else" and "Fallin' & Flyin'" that would fit Blake's career.

Songwriting royalties from the soundtrack album, which comes out Tuesday on New West, will go to Bruton's estate, with proceeds split between Sumter Bruton and Bruton's wife of 13 years, Mary.

"The challenge was to not just write good songs," said Kushnick, "but to write songs that sounded like they'd been big hits 25 years ago. Playing so many years with Kris (Kristofferson) definitely served Stephen well" in that capacity.

Bruton's resume also included work with Billy Joe Shaver, another Bad Blake model, whose influence is heard in an a capella version of "Live Forever" by Robert Duvall, which plays during the credits, when "Crazy Heart" is "dedicated to the memory of Stephen Bruton."

The project, expected to garner several Oscar nominations next month , just seems to be blessed, Burnett said.

"It feels like all the events of the past couple years have been pulling towards this vortex," he said.

Burnett said Bruton showed signs of improving health during his first couple of months in L.A.

"He had good doctors and he was putting some weight on and driving again," Burnett said. "But in the last week, he took a turn for the worse."

On the night of May 9, Bruton told his loved ones keeping a vigil at his bedside that he was going to sleep. He never woke up.

Leaning up against his bed was that old beat-up Epiphone Texan, his favorite guitar. It's the one he plays in the score of "Crazy Heart."

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652