Country music and Hollywood have ties that stretch back to the 1920's. To put it in further perspective, as soon as people were heard talking in motion pictures, they were heard singing--and they were heard singing Country music. As each institution grew, the ties between Hollywood and Nashville remained steadfast, creating crossover celebrities and--in some cases--cultural icons.
The marriage seldom produced great art, and Hollywood only rarely treated Country music as anything other than a hillbilly novelty (and, more often than not, cast its fans as low-culture stereotypes), but many times the results were as tremendously entertaining as they were truly offensive. And, in some cases, it had a revolutionary impact on music and film that neither anticipated.
The first "Talking Picture" was "The Jazz Singer," in 1927, starring Al Jolson. In 1930 the first singing cowboy, Ken Maynard, made his debut in "Sons of the Saddle." The first true star of the genre was the inimitable Gene Autry, who helped define not only Country music, but--along with John Wayne--the American and global perception of the cowboy. Autry was soon followed by Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter--each of whom would go on to enjoy lengthy and commerically-successful careers (Rogers eventually banding together with the Sons of the Pioneers).
The cowboy tradition established by Autry, Rogers, and Ritter would have a profound influence on Country music for decades to come. Hank Williams named his band The Drifting Cowboys (though he was born and bred in Alabama, not exactly cattle country) and was seldom seen without a white cowboy hat. Marty Robbins and Eddy Arnold enjoyed immense success with Western concept albums ("Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs" and "Cattle Call", respectively).
The Outlaw movement of the 1970's (spearheaded by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) invoked the silver screen cowboy image, as evidenced by the cover art for "Wanted: The Outlaws,"
and Nelson's concept album "Red Headed Stranger". Nelson, Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt, and Randy Travis all starred in Western movies in homage to their predecessors. Out of these, only Kristofferson was ever noted for his acting ability, appearing in dozens of movies co-starring with everyone from Barbara Streisand to Pee-Wee Herman.
Country corn took center stage in the 1960's with a variety of B-movies featuring cameos by several stars. "The Las Vegas Hillbillys" and "Hillbillys In A Haunted House" (both part of the same franchise) spotlighted stars such as Ferlin Husky, Connie Smith, Del Reeves, Bill Anderson, and Merle Haggard, singing between uneventful action sequences. Similarly, "Road To Nashville," spliced performances by Waylon Jennings, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, Faron Young, and a very strung-out looking Johnny Cash with the Carter Family, with slapstick humor. None of the films did much to change the public's perception of Country as "hick" music, which was only perpetuated on the small screen by the television debut of "Hee-Haw" in 1969. "Hee-Haw" was certainly legitimate musically, featuring Buck Owens, Roy Clark, and guests including everyone from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to Ray Charles and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Culturally, however, with its crude humor and rural stereotypes, "Hee-Haw" was was the equivalent of a backwoods minstrel show. In spite of this, the show was enormously successful (even among urban demographics), and aired for over a decade.
Thankfully, to offset "Hee-Haw's" jaundiced depiction of Country music (and people), Johnny Cash debuted with his own variety show the same year. Surprisingly to some (and probably not at all to others), Cash strayed from Nashville's narrow path, booking special guests such as Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong along with Merle Haggard and Marty Robbons. Most notoriously, he refused to edit the word "stoned" from Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and allowed Pete Seeger to perform and anti-Vietnam demonstration song on the air, much to the chagrin of network executives. Unfortunately, the show was short-lived due to television's "rural purge" of 1971, which cut Cash along with The Beverley Hillbillies and Green Acres, thinking they appealed to a demographic that was old, poor, and uneducated. The irony in this being that "The Johnny Cash" show appealed to young, college educated people, who identified with the iconoclastic Cash and were introduced to music they may not have been exposed to (properly) otherwise.
As the Outlaw movement gathered momentum, the goofy homespun humor of Hollywood B-movies like "Hillbillys In A Haunted House" gave way for a new generation of "Rednecksploitation" films, featuring soundtracks perfectly suited for a renegade youth culture. "Killers Three," featuring the music of Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, and Cowboy Jack Clement (with a bit role in the film by Haggard), told the story of a moonshiner who murdered a revenuer. The outlaw moonshiner motif was used again, most notably, in Burt Reynold's "White Lighting" and "Gator" (co-starring Jerry Reed, who would also appear with Burt in the "Smokey and the Bandit" trilogy), culminating with 1975's "Moonrunners".
"Moonrunners" introduced the word (or at least a small part of it) to moonshiner Uncle Jesse, sheriff Roscoe Coltrane, and a watering hole named The Boar's Nest. Any of this sound familiar? It should, if the film's narrator/balladeer, Waylon Jennings, doesn't hammer it home, let's be frank: it was the inspiration for "The Dukes of Hazzard". Only two actors from the film made it as regulars on the television series; Ben Jones, who went from playing a Fed in the film to becoming "Cooter" on the show, and Waylon who kept his role as the narrator.
"The Dukes of Hazzard" ran from 1978 to 1985, establishing it as a franchise (complete with merchandise, including lunch pails, toys, shirts, and even a major motion picture). Like "Hee-Haw," "The Dukes" did not reflect favorably or rural people--particularly Southerners--but, for the most part, it was damned entertaining. That Country artists would make cameos seemed a given, and they did--usually having to play a gig at The Boar's Nest to avoid a fine or imprisonment due to a trumped-up charge by Boss Hogg's sheriff sidekick. Performers included Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Tammy Wynette, Mel Tillis, and--most memorably--Johnny Paycheck.
Not everything Hollywood had a hand in concerning Country music was intellectual garbage. The biopic "Coal Miner's Daughter," based on the life of Loretta Lynn, was a critical and commercial success. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and Sissy Spacek (chosen for the lead by Lynn herself) won "Best Actress." A similar success, "Tender Mercies," starring Robert Duvall as Country singer Mac Sledge, garnered five nominations. The fictional Sledge sparked speculation that the character was based on Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, or George Jones (depending on the source). My own conjecture is that Bob Duvall was channeling Billy Joe Shaver (who he enlisted to play opposite him in "The Apostle"). Duvall, for the record, says Sledge wasn't based on anyone. Duvall received the Academy's nod for "Best Actor," presented with award by none other than Dolly Parton (who made her own cinematic inroads with "Nine to Five," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," and "Steel Magnolias".
At least two Hollywood features were inspired by Country music songs, "Convoy" and "Take This Job and Shove It". "Convoy," starring Kris Kristofferson and Ernest Borgnine, was based on C.W. McCall's novelty smash of the same name. A CB (or "citizen's band") radio craze had swept America, fading out about the time the film reached theaters. Surprisingly, the movie isn't half bad. The same, however, can't be said for "Take This Job and Shove It," the David Allan Coe-penned/Johnny Paycheck-sung blue collar revolt anthem. It wasn't Paycheck's first foray into film (that was 1978's "J.D. and the Salt Flat Kid), nor would it be his last--also appearing in the cult documentary "Hell's Angels Forever".
Another Country musician-turned-made-for TV-actor was Kenny Rogers. Rogers rode the television success of "The Gambler" (based on his signature tune) to the big screen for the insipid "Six Pack". The poor reviews and lackluster box office showing of the movie prompted him to return to the small screen, where he revisited his Gambler role for two more unspectacular movies.
Clint Eastwood, whose Western roles personified the outlaw image so many Country stars have sought to emulate, took a hiatus from gunslinging to strap on a guitar for the superbly entertaining "Honkytonk Man," featuring cameos by Marty Robbins, Ray Price, and Porter Wagoner. It was an obvious labor of love for Eastwood who, as evidenced by the soundtracks of many of his 80's movies, was a Country fan. He even had a chart-topping duet, "Barroom Buddies," with Merle Haggard from the film "Bronco Billy".
Given his cross-cultural appeal, it was inevitable that Willie Nelson would take his turn on the big screen. After a bit part in 1979's "The Electric Horseman" with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, Willie starred as the semi-autobiographical character Buck Bonham in the 1980 feature "Honeysuckle Rose". Willie continued to return to the silver screen, most notably as the outlaw "Barbarosa" in the movie of the same name, opposite Kris Kristofferson in "Songwriter," with Rober De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in "Wag The Dog," and as Uncle Jesse in the modern movie version of "The Dukes of Hazzard".
If one movie was to have a significant (and irreparable) impact of Country music, it was certainly "Urban Cowboy".
Star John Travolta had already defined the ultimate fad of the previous generation as a disco dancer in "Saturday Night Fever," then--as Disco deservedly fell out of favor with the masses--he turned his attention to the honky tonk nightlife burgeoning in cities across America. Charlie Daniels and Johnny Lee made musical appearances, and Mickey Gilley's eponymous nightclub was used as a location, but that was as Country as it got. The soundtrack opted to use certifiably non-Country artists such as Bonnie Raitt and Dan Fogelberg, but it wasn't the music--as much as the fashion--that had the biggest impact on audiences. Feathered Stetson hats, designer cowboy boots, and mechanical bulls became en vogue. This trend, no doubt, led to the plague of fabricated Country acts (from to Shania Twain to Rascal Flatts) that have dominated the charts over the years.
In 2000 the unlikely success of the Coen Brothers' "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" turned "Americana" into a NPR phenomenon. Each scene of the movie was like a surrealistic music video, introducing the music of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and The Stanley Brothers to a new audience, while bringing relatively new artists like Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Dan Tyminski previously inconceivable recognition. Unfortunately, just as the "Urban Cowboy" craze of the 80's spawned a myriad of shallow "Hat Acts," the"O' Brother" aftermath begat teems of "Americana" artists, many lacking a background in, or appreciation of, Country music.
At the end of the 00's another independent film defied expectations, becoming a critical and commercial success. "Crazy Heart," based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, starred Jeff Bridges as the rode-hard-and-put-away-wet troubadour, Bad Blake. Bridges won "Best Actor" for his portrayal, but--perhaps, more significantly--real-life troubadour Ryan Bingham earned his own Academy honor for "Best Song". Along with "Tender Mercies," "Crazy Heart" is the most accurate and affecting portrait of a Country singer, a far cry from the romantic escapism of George Strait's "Pure Country," or the much-abridged biopic of Johnny and June Cash, "Walk The Line" (featuring gussied-up potrayals of John and June by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon). The highlight of the film, if there is one, is Shooter Jennings' role as his father--in which he simply plays himself (just like Waylon would have done).
Hollywood has done much to proliferate Country music's mythos, for better and worse. Anyone who is a true fan of the genre is aware that Country isn't merely cut-off shorts and moonshine stills. Neither is it singing in the saddle while toting a Henry rifle. There's a whole lot of hell-raising, but there's also the honest search for redemption. The real-life stories don't all have happy endings, and they don't all end in a bloodbath in an isolated desert town.
No one could have anticipated in the 1930's the course that each respective industry would take, or how much they would influence our entertainment-obsessed society. And today no one could envision a world where Nashville and Hollywood don't cross-pollinate each other. Some good news to consider: thanks to technology becoming so accessible--and people becoming increasingly disenfranchised with what each institution has to offer--both music and movies are being produced independently with disregard to trends or demographics. Country music, with any luck, should continue to be a part of movie making in the years to come. And, with any luck, they won't be coming from Hollywood or Nashville.
Listen to some samples here: https://play.spotify.com/user/1268894593/playlist/0yg2MDFd52B7Cjg9sDrwWg