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Stephen Bruton one of Austin’s best guitar players passes away

on May 9, 2009 No comments

By Austin Powell, Fri., May 15, 2009

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Stephen Bruton (1948-2009)

“You know the funny thing about the blues?” Bonnie Raitt prefaced “Thing Called Love” at the Bass Concert Hall on Sunday night. “It cures what ails you.”

Like the rest of Austin, Raitt was reeling from the passing of her longtime friend, peer, and collaborator Stephen Bruton, who succumbed to cancer Saturday morning in Los Angeles at the age of 60. While the guitarist had been diagnosed in December 2006 and undergone multiple treatments in the years following, his death still shocked the local scene he helped shape.

Simply put, Turner Stephen Bruton was a definitive Austin musician. As a producer, he helmed local touchstones such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s major label breakthrough, 1991’s After Awhile, and Alejandro Escovedo’s first solo albums, along with works by Sue Foley, Marcia Ball, and Storyville.

“He taught me so much about how to arrange songs, about how to write songs, about how to sing them, about how to play them, about how to gather a team of people around you that’s strong and all committed to the same thing, and how to have fun doing it,” reflects Escovedo. “We had a blast, but when it came time to work, he was the commandant. He laid down the law, and we did it, but it was beautiful. It was always done with love, and it was always done with humor, and it was always done with a lot of respect. I think we did our best work together. I really do.”

Alejandro Escovedo and Stephen Bruton, 2008 Photo by Todd V. Wolfson
Alejandro Escovedo and Stephen Bruton, 2008
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

As a guitarist, Bruton spent 17 years, beginning in 1971, backing Kris Kristofferson, later appearing beside him in such films as Heaven’s Gate, the late Bud Shrake’s Songwriter, and A Star Is Born (1976), not to mention Bruton’s other notable film credentials: The Alamo, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Miss Congeniality. The Fort Worth Panther also served time with Delbert McClinton and performed on numerous works by the Byrds’ Gene Clark and James McMurtry. Longtime booker David Cotton calls the Saxon Pub, the site of Bruton’s beloved Sunday night residency with the Resentments, “the house that Stephen built,” citing his tireless work ethic and ideals.

“I’d put him in the Top 5 guitar players in the world, and anybody that takes exception, I’d take ’em into the alley and explain to them why,” cackles Resentments co-founder Jon Dee Graham. “He was a force of nature, a player’s player. He had so much knowledge and respect for what it meant to be on the stage and to do the job.”

As a songwriter, Bruton carved his way into Texas mythology with five stellar solo offerings of spiritual wonderment and confident contemplation. His work has been covered by Raitt, Patty Loveless, Jimmy Buffett, and the Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kristofferson), among others.

Bonnie Raitt - Sunday night, May 10, 2009 © Gary Miller
Bonnie Raitt – Sunday night, May 10, 2009 © Gary Miller

“There was mastery to his playing and songwriting on every level,” stresses bandmate Scrappy Jud Newcomb. “He always delivered.”

And he worked until the bitter end, serving as co-musical director with T Bone Burnett for the upcoming film Crazy Heart. While in L.A. undergoing treatment, he also completed work for Kristofferson’s forthcoming Starlight and Stone and told the Chronicle in September that he was writing material for the follow-up to his last solo album, 2005’s From the Five.

“Stephen was my oldest and dearest friend,” Burnett said in a statement earlier this week. “We started playing music together almost 50 years ago – the first song we played was ‘Hello Stranger’ by the Carter Family – and so much of what I know about music came from those early days with Stephen and his family at Record Town in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bruton and Kristofferson, 2004 © Gary Miller
Bruton and Kristofferson, 2004 © Gary Miller

“He was one of the best pure songwriters of the last 30 years.”

Yet, to measure Bruton’s life by his résumé would miss the very essence of his existence. He was an inspiring, lighthearted, and impressionable soul. After sobering up more than two decades ago, he dedicated much of his life to helping those in need, sponsoring countless individuals through various drug-treatment programs.

“He was an iconic figure, a leader for sure, but on top of that, he was so caring of other people and a good friend,” Gilmore adds. “That’s the highest compliment you can pay to someone.”

What transpired on Sunday at Bass with Raitt proved a serendipitous memorial celebration, a fond and healing remembrance though song that peaked in the encore with a devastatingly beautiful rendition of Bruton’s “Too Many Memories (For One Heart to Hold).”

“I’ve been crying all day and never thought I’d get through this show,” Raitt smiled. “I feel so much better now.”

Source: © The Austin Chronicle

See also:
Interview 2007

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