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Grammys 2011: T Bone Burnett gets Recording Academy President's Special Merit Award, slams MP3 technology

February 10, 2011 | 11:11 am

Awards season typically brings lots of glad-handing and self-congratulation, but producer T Bone Burnett showed little interest in engaging in the usual pleasantries Wednesday night at the Grammy Week Gala put on by the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing.

The academy elected Burnett to receive this year’s President’s Merit Award after an extraordinarily productive year, even by Burnett’s busy standard. He applied his signature touch to Elton John and Leon Russell’s “The Union,” Elvis Costello’s “National Ransom,"  Jakob Dylan’s “Women + Country,” Willie Nelson’s “Country Music,” Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s “We Walk This Road,” John Mellencamp’s “No Better Than This” and Gregg Allman’s just released “Low Country Blues.”

He even found time amid all that to pick up a best original song Academy Award for “The Weary Kind,” which he cowrote with Ryan Bingham,” for the  surprise hit film “Crazy Heart,” for which he also served as executive producer.

All of which adds up to something of a mystery that his name didn’t end up among the contenders for nonclassical producer of the year.  Either the academy decided that by giving him the President’s Merit Award, a nomination in the producer category was unnecessary, or it was their way of correcting the oversight.

In any event, Burnett collected his framed certificate from academy president Neil Portnow during the party at the Village recording studio in West Los Angeles, where Burnett does the majority of his recordings while he’s working in L.A.

Honorary event chairmen John and Russell sent congratulatory comments by video, John calling him “the greatest producer out there right now,” and describing working with Burnett and Russell on “The Union” as “one of the greatest pleasures of my life.” To Burnett, he said, “I love you. Let’s run off together. That’s all.”

Russell also took a good-humored approach, congratulating Burnett for the award and adding, “I’m not sure what this particular award is for, but I’m sure he’s a great guy to have it.”

Before an audience of fellow producers and engineers, among them Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker and longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, Burnett used his short time at the microphone to share his thoughts on the state of the music business, pulling no punches about what he thinks the failures are.

“We are people who care about music,” he said, “and who care about sound. … We’re often told that the market has spoken, and that people want convenience and they don’t care about sound.

“Well, I don’t want to make music for people that don’t care about music. The record business made a colossal mistake when it started making music for people who don’t like music,” he said. “It also made a strategic mistake in the blind acceptance of digital over analog… Guitars are analog, drums are analog, people are analog and we live in an analog world.

“Of all the blights that science has inflicted on the soul of man, I consider the MP3 as among the worst,” Burnett said. He went on to lobby his peers and record industry executives  to embrace higher standards of audio reproduction as a way of delivering high-quality music to the fans who are most passionate about what they hear.

Then he introduced the Secret Sisters, the sibling duo from Alabama he’s taken under his wing, and who appear tonight at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. They sang just two numbers, one from their recently released debut album and a new one, “Sweet Hawaiian Chimes,” that may turn up in a film Burnett is working on with screenwriter and director Callie Khouri about bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

Despite her successes with “Thelma & Louise” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” Khouri said Wednesday, “I’m having the same experience any other indie filmmaker has -- two steps forward, one step back. But it’s coming along.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of the Secret Sisters: Lydia (left) and Laura Rogers. Credit: Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times.