A STEPHEN BRUTON SONG CONTAINS THE LYRIC, “REFLECTED glory is the way that I’ve been seen for most of my life.” The typically modest Bruton might have been referring to the shine of better-known performers who benefited from his stellar guitar playing, songwriting, and production over a three-decade career. This list includes Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett, Alejandro Escovedo, Elvis Costello, the Wallflowers, Delbert McClinton, and a host of others.
Raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Turner Stephen Bruton was weaned on blues, country, jazz, pop, and classical discs at his father’s record store, with locals like Freddie King and Ornette Coleman providing live inspiration. His guitar chops were honed playing bluegrass by day and blues at night. After an adolescence spent making music with hometown friend T-Bone Burnett, he joined Kristofferson’s band at the tender age of 20.
Bruton was a rock-solid rhythm guitarist, whether dealing in crunchy Chuck Berry/Keith Richards grooves or clean funk workouts. “Setting the song up, establishing the groove, is so much more important in the long run than the solo playing,” he once observed. Though he claimed, “One of the most overworked things in music is the obligatory guitar solo,” people prized Bruton’s own leads as exemplars of the four T’s: touch, taste, time, and tone. His elegant lines combined pedal-steel bends, blues feeling, jazz harmony, and rock edge into a seamless whole. Wielding Fender, Gibson, Collings, or PRS instruments, he would drive his Dumble amp just hard enough to make it sing.
Over the years, Bruton’s good looks and big-as-Texas personality brought him roles in Hollywood films like Heaven’s Gate, Songwriter, and Miss Congeniality. “In acting, you use everything you use when you are playing music live,” said Bruton. “It’s an ensemble thing. It’s real similar in terms of support and collaboration.”
Still, he will be remembered first and foremost as a musician. “I get to do what I love. And I’ve been very fortunate to do what I do for a long time.” Fans of Stephen Bruton’s music know it wasn’t long enough.