Over the phone, Kevin Costner speaks with the kind of candor and soft-spoken intensity that has made him one of America's most respected and durable actors. But the 60-year-old Oscar-winning director of Dances With Wolves and star of Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Open Range and some 50 more movies is also a lifelong musician whose country-rock band, Kevin Costner & Modern West, is a far cry from an average actor's side project.
Besides winning an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor In a Miniseries or Movie for 2012's Hatfields & McCoys (which also won Outstanding Miniseries), Costner was one of the producers, while his band was also heavily involved in creating the music for the miniseries. It can be heard on their album Famous for Killing Each Other, a lengthy set of brooding Americana that has drawn favorable comparisons to some of T-Bone Burnett's productions.
Costner was raised in the Baptist church, where his grandmother was the piano player, which led to several years of classical piano training and eventual frustration; "no girl wanted to sit next to you when you played "Greensleeves," he says. Though he's careful not to label the kind of music he makes with Modern West, Costner says he was drawn to the kind of musical storytelling traditions of many musicians from Oklahoma (where his parents are from), as well as his love of history.
By the way, the closest Costner has come to playing a musician onscreen was in 2008's Swing Vote, where he plays the ultimate undecided voter who is also a member of a Willie Nelson cover band called the Half Nelsons. But in his twenties, he played in a band called Roving Boy that he reluctantly put on hold when his acting work started picking up.
"I thought, 'Gosh, do I really want to need this actor/musician thing that seems to be this raging debate?', Costner says. "It seems like music people can go be in movies, but God forbid an actor make music. So things were going really well for me in acting, I thought, "I don't really need this."
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But he missed playing, and a few years ago his wife, Christine, found an old Roving Boy tape and asked Costner if he wanted to resume that side of his life. He admitted he did, so she brought him before his family to give him their blessing.
"She asked me a real fundamental question, which is, 'Are you happy doing it?'" recalls Costner. "The answer was yes, and she said, 'Do you think the people that are in front of you listening are happy?' I said, 'Yeah, I think so.' She said, 'What could be wrong with that?'
Costner called John Coinman, his old Roving Boy bandmate who had relocated to Tucson, and floated the idea past him; he signed on immediately. The two of them tracked down their old bass player, Blair Forward, and from their set about assembling the rest of the band, mostly through Coinman's various connections. Today the band is working on his fifth record and Costner says he considers Modern West -- who plays Stafford Centre tomorrow night -- as part of his extended family.
"I really depend on these guys," he says. "They all have to kind of cross a certain threshold with me, meaning they were going to have to be around my family and my children, so I had to figure out what kind of guys they were, because it's important to me how someone behaves around my children."
Modern West passed that test easily, though.
"They all love to rehearse, and I love to rehearse," Costner says. "It's very comfortable. It's never a problem getting them to play."
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Houston Press: Do you generally have a guitar nearby wherever you are? Kevin Costner: I take one with me, yeah. I've got this little mini-Martin that I'll take, whether it's in the car or on the plane, or something like that. But that's just me trying to keep up with these guys (laughs). They can play circles around me. I have to play by myself because we're physically apart. Two are in Nashville and three are in Tucson, so we exchange music back and forth. I have to play my guitar almost like a drum because I'm never with them.
Do you find yourself carrying around bits of songs in your head as you're working? Yeah. Sometimes it's lyrics. And it's different. Sometimes it's the car that will inspire something. I'd get more lyrical things and melodies in my head when I was making Hatfield and McCoys, because it was more poetry if I was writing down the feelings of violence that would occur between these two families.
Out of an average year now, how much time do you figure you spend on music with the band? Between actually recording and playing, I'd bet it's 45 days. Probably 30 of those [are] playing out. I could do a lot more because I love it, and the band wants to, but I just can't do any more than that.
You mentioned the Swing Vote role earlier. I was reading over your other credits, and unless I'm mistaken the only time you've kind of played a musician was the Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland. Was it fun to do Elvis for a minute? You know, I didn't do any of that during that movie; I wasn't required to do that kind of thing. I came home for my daughter's surprise party in that Elvis outfit and did a song for her and all of her 14-year-old friends, which was pretty humiliating.
There was an inquiry at one point about Crazy Heart, but it wasn't a formal offer I don't think. The band was forming at that time and I didn't want to have it [be], "Oh, I just did a movie and now I decide that I want to play music." I've really been conscious about how I wanted to do this. The music's going to take me wherever it takes me without a plan.
In the past have there been other musician roles that you've considered? Yeah. I think Al Pacino's just doing a movie [Danny Collins], but he was already attached to play that. I would consider something like that, but I'm not dying to do that in a movie. I'm really content doing things the way I do 'em.
Walk me through a typical set that you're doing. We do change our set almost every night. We've recorded about 40-50 songs, and of those 40 or 50 about 25 of 'em can be in a set any evening. The songs that we write, they just have to fight their way onto the set list. I mean, it's brutal. And I guess if you wanted to say anything about the band, I break all the ties. I decide what we'll do and what we won't do.
I try to tailor it for if it's a sit-down crowd or a stand-up crowd, or people are drinking, and we'll do it that way. The band's pretty nimble. On a given night, the set can change by four or five songs, which is pretty considerable, really.
What would you think Crash Davis' favorite band is? (laughs) Interesting. He feels like a classics guy, you know what I mean? I think he could like, believe it or not, listen to Sinatra and people like that. Because he's got to be around young guys on the bus, and they've got their music and he's got his. Anybody who loves music can travel through decades; they just do. And they can identify classic music. I think he would be a classic guy.
Kevin Costner & Modern West perform Tuesday, April 14 at Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash Rd., Stafford. Doors open at
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