Rock 'n' roll with a conscience: the special art of T-Bone Burnett

Rock 'n' roll gets played a lot of ways - with exuberance, with anger, with tongue in cheek, with affection. Occasionally, however, someone comes along who elevates rock beyond its emotional highs and lows - and plays it as a matter of conscience.

T-Bone Burnett, who is creating some of the most provocative, articulate rock 'n' roll in America today, belongs to that all-too-small latter group. Rock music for him is a vehicle for helping to change the world, to address the needs of a modern mankind too often alienated and absorbed in materialism.

''There's a real issue in the world today,'' said the lanky Texan, whose mini-album ''Trap Door,'' has just been released by Warner Brothers. ''You can see it everywhere. It's been going on in art for the last 70 years. It's really peaking now - the idea of 'you're isolated,' 'you're alone.'

''The problem,'' he said, ''is that man gets his sense of worth from things he has, things around him.'' The conflict between materiality and spirituality, he added, is ''the dilemma of Western man.''

Interestingly, what remains virtually unspoken - although always present - in Burnett's music are his Christian beliefs. He is a churchgoing Episcopalian who believes his talents are a gift from God. But he also believes the most effective way of sharing his religious convictions is by not taking to the overt gospel style of songwriting adopted by many of the ''born-again Christian'' rock singers.

''The beginning of knowing oneself is recognizing God,'' he said. ''But I'm really not interested in cute or clever ways of trying to talk about God through the medium of rock 'n' roll. Most of what I write are parables because I've got a notion that one can say more about his relationship to his creator by his attitude toward His creation.''

Unlike much of the spirited but essentially directionless rock 'n' roll that tops the charts and airwaves today, Burnett's songs rest on a deeply reflective, literate base. They are reminescent in both content and style of Dylan's early work - and yet strikingly original.

The music is dense and powerful, and the lyrics often unfold as modern parables that highlight recurring themes: man's alienation from the world around him, his preoccupation with material status and goods, his abandonment of individual responsiblity, his spiritual dullness to a world of wonder and feeling.

Although he's a relative unknown to the rock 'n' roll public, T-Bone (whose real name is J. Henry) has developed over the years a well-established insiders' reputation - and a small but loyal core of fans, including many rock critics. In 1975 and 1976 he hovered near the limelight as a guitarist with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, but it's been only recently that he has taken to the stage with his own material.

His work is filled with irony that is never caustic, guided with an unspoken sense of moralism that is never judgmental - and through it all, laced with gentle nudgings of the heart. For the uninitiated, ''Trap Door'' is a marvelous introduction to T-Bone's range of work: from his wonderfully mocking version of ''Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend'' and the Dostoyevsky-inspired ''A Ridiculous Man,'' to the elegance of ''Poetry'' (a stunning ballad), and the buoyant compassion of ''Hold On Tight.''

Performing, he says, has been a learning process - tested and tested again in Los Angeles clubs over the past five months (with New York next on the list this fall) - as he struggled to capture what he believes is the hallmark of truly great performers: generosity.

It's a struggle that has paid off. T-Bone Burnett in concert manages to create a give and take with his fans that virtually eliminates performer-audience barriers and proves his contention that ''performing is just like talking to a person.''

His shows are a dynamic blend that draw on his own material. His record covers show an eclectic group of songs like ''Diamonds'' and ''King of the Road''; and a free-for-all list of requests from the audience that ranges from early Beatles hits to Credence Clearwater Survival songs and Bob Dylan tunes.

''I don't want to be just some cult figure who goes around in dark glasses and is important,'' he continued. ''I also don't want to sing silly little songs to make money. I want to go as deep as I possibly can because I want to change things.''

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