Snakes in the Bluegrass

This appeared in Classic FM Magazine - May 2001

A huge arrow, bearing the words ‘snake pit’, points towards the basement music studio in actor-director Billy Bob Thornton’s new Hollywood home. But Marty Stuart, country and western singer-songwriter, has followed the sign so often, he no longer fears being bitten on his way there. He is secure in the knowledge that the one-time Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash, who once kept snakes all over the house, no longer lives there. When Slash sold up he left the sign behind. Now the only one who takes heed is Thornton, who refuses to sleep at home until all 11,000 square feet of the property have been scoured for snake eggs.

All the Pretty Horses is Marty Stuart’s soundtrack debut, and the first to hatch from Thornton’s basement. It’s also Thornton’s first major Hollywood film as director, a leap up from his last production Sling Blade. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s award winning novel, the $45-million budget stretches to A-list stars of the calibre of Penelope Cruz and Matt Damon.

The film, set in the 1940’s, tells the story of John Grandy Cole (Matt Damon), who, after his grandfather’s death, finds himself without family or home, and so joins his friend Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) on horseback to Mexico. On route, they run into Jimmy Blevin (Lucas Black), a young troublemaker also heading south. Their road to reunion in a Mexican prison begins when Cole and Rawlins find work at the ranch of aristocrat Rocha (Ruben Blades), whose raunchy daughter, Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) makes eyes at Cole. Against the wishes of Alejandra’s father, she and John Grandy come together, but are soon separated when the boys are jailed on trumped-up charges. Upon Cole’s release he returns for Alejandra,

Born in Thornton’s basement, it seems fitting that a viper’s sting marked the films birth. Sling Blade composer Daniel Lanois was the first to descend into Thornton’s studio, but was badly bitten when his bosses at Miramax decided that his music was unworkable. It was ditched, and the film was sliced from three-and-a-quarter hours to 113 minutes, and Stuart was drafted to replace Lanois.

“It needed a giant ‘hit-ya-right-between-the-eyes’ tune you can whistle when you leave the theatre,” explains Stuart. “So I gave it one of those melodies that’s brand new, but feels like you’ve known it all your life. We were going to fuse my songs with Daniel’s orchestration, but he withdrew most of his cues from the film.”

Stuart’s score scooped up a surprise nomination at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, delivering classic western sounding mood-music combined with Spanish rhythms, orchestrated by Kristin Wilkinson and Larry Paxton. Despite Thornton’s attachment to Lanois’s music, only four of his original orchestral cues remain on film. “I felt very uncomforable – stepping on Daniel’s work,” confesses Stuart. “I found myself with three different guns pointed at my head. In the end, I just had to go with what the film asked for.”

Country and western runs in Stuart’s blood. Born and bred in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he first picked up the guitar when he was 5, and at age 12, joined a bluegrass band on tour. Within 10 years he was touring with Bob Dylan and playing sessions with Neil Young and Billy Joel. In the 1980’s, Stuart teamed up with country legend Johnny Cash, and dreamed of making his music heard on film. “Hollywood makes the best movies in the world, New York makes the best plays, and the best music in the world comes from Nashville,” he exclaims. “But the one thing Nashville never succeeded in doing was making its music heard right on film.”

Stuart’s mission to change that began back in 1997, when the actor Steven Seagal asked Marty to perform a couple of Blue Grass Songs on Felix Enriquez Alcala’s action thriller Fire Down Below. Stuart then appeared with Penelope Cruz in Stephen Frear’s western Hi-Lo Country, miming the fiddle when one of the band dropped out. Since then, he has collaborated with Thornton, writing his first full score for his Southern drama Daddy and Them, to be released later this year.

“I fell a real kinship with Billy Bob, because he’s from Arkansas and I’m from Mississippi,” he reveals. “We Southern boys feel a friendship immediately.” Though Nashville is a popular location – Tom Hanks shot his prison drama The Green Mile there, and Robert Redford is filming his action drama The Castle in the area – a rift still exists between the America South and Hollywood. “Going to California is a bit like going to the zoo,” he says. “We look at them in awe and they do the same. Hollywood and Nashville are both very small and tightly woven communities. Nashville doesn’t necessarily need Hollywood and Hollywood doesn’t need Nashville. But sometimes you have to step outside the natural habitats to find the right ingredients for a film.”

After meeting Faye Dunaway at the Golden Globes party earlier this year, Stuart has since collaborated with the actress on the soundtrack for her directoral debut – an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Yellow Bird. He is also putting the finishing touches to Billy Bob Thornton’s next film, Wakin’ up in Reno.

“I really think I’m beginning to understand film composing,” he says. “I have so much to learn, but it’s definitely worth learning about.”

By Nick Shave

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