Stephen Bruton, musician, songwriter, and actor, was born Turner Stephen Bruton in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 1948. He was the son of Kathleen and Sumter Bruton, Jr. For much of his life Stephen Bruton was a popular Austin-based musician who was “in demand as much for his astute guitar work as for his insights as a songwriter.” Bruton performed with a number of prominent artists, but he is perhaps best-known as country superstar Kris Kristofferson’s lead guitar player—a musical collaboration that lasted almost four decades.
Around the age of two, he moved with his family to Fort Worth, where his father, a renowned jazz drummer, opened Record Town, a record store, in 1957. Consequently, young Stephen was constantly surrounded by music. He began his musical journey as a bluegrass prodigy and won numerous banjo contests. Guitar playing became Bruton’s main focus around the age of twelve, as he started exploring country, blues, and other styles of music. Early in his teen years, he studied the music of the 1920s and 1930s through Library of Congress field recordings that his father could order through his record store. “Every teenager wants to like something different than their father or brother and there sure wasn’t anybody in Ft. Worth listening to as much of the [John and Alan] Lomax work as me,” Bruton once said. As a teenager, Stephen Bruton began to record and perform with two friends who would become lifelong musical collaborators—T Bone Burnett and Delbert McClinton. In 1965 Bruton attended the Newport Folk Festival and saw Bob Dylan’s transformation from his earlier acoustic sound to electric, and Bruton was asked to carry guitars for Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. Bruton graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in journalism in 1970. He moved to Woodstock, New York. While there, Bruton traveled to Manhattan one evening to see his friend Kris Kristofferson perform at the Village Vanguard. Kristofferson offered to make Bruton his lead guitar player, a position Bruton would hold for nearly two decades. He recorded guitar and vocals on three Kristofferson albums in 1972, including the acclaimed Border Land. Additionally, the following year, he toured with Delbert McClinton and recorded on his album Subject to Change. He also performed with Maria Muldaur, Lowell George, Geoff Muldaur, and others before being asked by Kristofferson to join him and his co-star Barbra Streisand for the filming of A Star is Born in 1976.
Stephen Bruton went on to perform and record with such popular artists as Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, the Wallflowers, Christine McVie, Carly Simon, Sonny Landreth, Bob Schneider, and Peter Case. He was a talented songwriter whose songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Waylon Jennings, Hal Ketchum, Marcia Ball, Patty Loveless, and many others.
From his base in Los Angeles, Bruton moved back to Texas by the mid-1980s, after making the movie Songwriter (1984) with Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in Austin. He settled in Austin and began to produce, write, and record. He toured with Bonnie Raitt in the early 1990s, and during this time, he also earned notable praise as a producer on Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s After Awhile (1991), Alejandro Escovedo’s Gravity (1992) and other projects. His first project as a solo artist was What It Is in 1993 on Antone’s Records. He recorded four more solo albums—Right on Time (1995), Nothing But the Truth (1999), Spirit World (2002), and From the Five (2005). Along with his solo work, Bruton recorded albums with an Austin group, The Resentments, which included songwriters Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Hughes, and Jud Newcomb. The band was known for its weekly shows at Austin’s Saxon Pub. Award-winning producer and longtime friend of Bruton, T Bone Burnett, called Bruton the “soul of Texas music.” “He immersed himself more deeply in the history of the place where we came from than anyone I know,” Burnett remarked.
Bruton had an active film and television career. In addition to A Star is Born, he played roles in such films as Heaven's Gate (1980), Miss Congeniality (2000), The Alamo (2004), and Man of the House (2005).
Stephen Bruton was diagnosed with throat cancer by early 2007. He died of cancer on May 9, 2009, at the Los Angeles home of his childhood friend, T Bone Burnett. They had just completed their last collaboration—the film Crazy Heart, for which Bruton had written several songs and served as music co-producer. He had also recently completed work on Kristofferson’s album, Closer to the Bone. Bruton is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas. He was survived by his wife Mary Keating Bruton. They were estranged at the time of his death and had no children. Crazy Heart, which garnered a number of coveted awards, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award and Oscars for Best Actor and Best Original Song, was dedicated to Stephen Bruton. He was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2012.