True Detective, a dark new anthology series that premiered on HBO earlier this month, has been greeted with wide critical praise. "True Detective could be the next Breaking Bad," gushed The New Republic. The philosophical drama (written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana homicide detectives Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. The show follows their hunt for a serial killer, as well as their struggles with inner demons and family.
The series' brooding atmosphere is framed by an expertly crafted soundtrack—some of the songs are haunting, some are bluesy, some are both. The music is selected by none other than T Bone Burnett, the Oscar-winning producer and musician.
"I have a long history with detective movies—almost as long as I have with rock 'n' roll," Burnett says. "I've always been interested in crime and true crime. If you listen to my records, like Criminal Under My Own Hat, you can feel it. I love Chandler and Hammett; I love detective movies."
Burnett's musical accomplishments are wide-ranging: He was musical director for Roy Orbison's fantastic 1988 black-and-white special and played guitar on the road with Bob Dylan, for instance. In recent years, Burnett has made an even bigger name for himself through his acclaimed work on movie soundtracks, from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to The Hunger Games.
When Burnett cracked open the 500-page script for True Detective's first season (each season tells a different story, with the initial one spanning eight episodes), he instantly fell in love with the characters and dialogue (which he calls "some of the best tough-guy dialogue I've ever heard"). More than that, he felt an artistic connection to the material.
"It was like reading a good novel," Burnett says. "Right from the very beginning, when I read the description of a burnt-out field, I thought of the cover of my album Tooth of Crime, and said to myself, 'This guy's been tapping my phone!'"
Burnett's affection for the series comes through in his song selection, which plays like a sinister blues and gospel party mix. When he began working on this project, he and Pizzolatto both agreed that there should be an unofficial policy to veer the soundtrack away from Louisiana swamp blues and Cajun music because "it's already been done so much," Burnett says. The soundtrack includes tracks like "Bring It to Jerome" by Bo Diddley, "Clear Spot" by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, "Stand By Me" by The Staple Singers, and "Honey Bee (Let's Fly to Mars)" by Grinderman. "It's like scoring an eight-hour movie," Burnett says.