Tom Waits in a cowboy hat: five musicians who were born to be in Westerns
Senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies, Dr Martin Hall muses on why musicians and Westerns seem so indelibly associated
As well as being one of America’s greatest songwriters of the past 30 years, Tom Waits, it must be said, was made to be on screen – and I can’t escape the thought that he was born to be in the Western. He has had a fantastic film career and has even starred in the quintessential (if not so great in my opinion) modern Western: Cold Feet. Waits has been directed by Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, Tony Scott, Robert Altman and can now add the Coen Brothers to his already incredible CV.
Waits plays a gold prospector in the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – which is split up into six separate, but interlinked stories, beginning with the eponymous tale of Scruggs, a Roy Rogers-style singing cowboy who, under a harmless exterior, is a savage killer. Waits stars in a segment called “All Gold Canyon” as a lone gold miner. The film was first shown at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, where it won an award for Best Screenplay. It is set to air on Netflix on November 18.
Why is it that musicians and Westerns seem so indelibly associated? It all starts with the archetypal singing cowboy, made famous by the likes of Rogers and his fellow singing cowboy Gene Autry in the 1930s. Since then, many musicians have found themselves attracted to the genre. Meanwhile the Coen Brothers are well-known for using music in their movies: from O Brother Where Art Thou – which showcased the bluegrass of the depression-era West – to Inside LLewyn Davis – which showcased the 1960s folk scene – and even The Big Lebowski – where the soundtrack helps form part of the film’s narrative. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks to continue the Coen’s embrace of this musical legacy.
So here are my five picks for actor-musicians you should check out to warm you up for the Coens’ forthcoming release.
One of the most prolific recording artists to appear in a ten-gallon hat is singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson, best known among mainstream moviegoers as the co-star – with Barbra Streisand – of A Star is Born (1976). Early on in his songwriting career, Kristofferson established his country pedigree with songs such as Me and Bobby McGee and Help Me Make It Through the Night.
When it comes to Westerns his credits include Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (about which more later), Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Heaven’s Gate. The less said about the latter, the better, except that it’s generally thought to have ended Michael Cimino’s directorial career and it didn’t do Kristofferson much good as an actor either, although the film is gradually being reappraised as a misunderstood masterpiece.
When Daryl Hannah came to cast her directorial debut, Paradox (2018) she didn’t have to look too far for someone to fill the role of “Man in the Black Hat” – her partner Neil Young. Young feels like a perfect pick in that not only does he look as if he sleeps in his cowboy hat, he’s also got a pretty impeccable country pedigree, despite being Canadian by birth.
Willie Nelson, one of the all-time greats of country music, also makes an appearance. Worth a look for either of these two in my opinion (less so for the plot, sadly).
In both his music and his movies, David Bowie was a shapeshifter, experimenting between genres. Best known onscreen for his starring roles as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and a goblin king in Labyrinth, his role as a gunslinger is less well known but no less worth a view for all that.
It was probably the prospect of working with composer Ennio Morricone that tempted Bowie to into a role alongside Harvey Keitel in Giovanni Veronasi’s 1998 Italian film, Il Mio West (Gunslinger’s Revenge). Keitel’s retired gunslinger returns home to his son’s farm, only to be followed by his longtime nemesis Jack – Bowie – who insists on a fight to the death and kidnaps Keitel’s son as motivation. This is a little-seen Western in which Bowie’s murderous character performs a macabre Glory Glory Hallelujah that is so outside of what we have come to expect from The Thin White Duke that it really must be seen to be believed.
Johnny Cash, aka “The Man in Black” – with his southern Arkansas drawl and his catalogue of country songs such as The Greatest Cowboy of them All and The Last Cowboy Song – was practically made for the Western.
Cash starred in a good many TV roles for Westerns but A Gunfight, for which Cash composed and performed the title theme, is an unsung and under-appreciated gem of a film which has the distinction of being the first Western financed by American Indians, in this case the Jicarilla Apache Tribe. The film received mixed reviews, some greeting it as a good old-fashioned Western, others as a flaccid flick that doesn’t make the most of the Cash songs in the soundtrack.
Bob Dylan has spent a fair few hours on film, mostly playing himself. But when you read the name Sam Peckinpah you know you are getting a proper Western. Like Heaven’s Gate, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was plagued with problems – and Dylan has been more feted for his brilliant soundtrack album of the same title than for his acting (co-star Kristofferson’s performance as The Kid was generally better received). Watch the movie if you fancy it, but do yourself a favour and get to know the album which features the classic Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
So Waits is joining a pretty star-studded array of musicians who have donned cowboy hats and boots – and whether they are wielding six-shooters or guitars, there seems to be something about the Western that has drawn in some of music’s biggest names. The likes of Elvis Presley and Nelson deserve honourable mntions, but we all have our favourites, and these are mine.
Martin Hall, Senior Lecturer, York St John University