The heart of country music

March 11, 2010

Crazy Heart examines the life of an aging country music singer who faces questions about what is authentic and what it means to live life without "selling out."

COUNTRY MUSIC has always roamed the open borderland between authentic and phony. There are many artists who lean one way or the other, but the interpenetration is undeniable.

Listen to the great Hank Williams sing "Kawliga," about a cigar store carved wood Indian long for an "Indian maid over in the antique store," and you'll hear the clash.

Buck Owens, one of the best songwriters and innovators of country music had a career riddled with the question of whether he was a fool or a prophet in songs like "Act Naturally" and "Together Again." The show Owens hosted in the 1970s and '80s, Hee Haw, an impossibly corny and chauvinistic show, was one of the great showcases for Roy Clark's superb and often stunning guitar banjo and fiddle playing.

Crazy Heart, the film about fictitious country singer/songwriter Bad Blake, displays this contradiction throughout the film as well as in its production.

The lead is played well by Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar and multiple other awards for the role. Key to this much-heralded performance, however, is the music itself. T-Bone Burnett, who's credited as producer and songwriter for the film, also worked on the music in O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk the Line, as well as playing a large role in Bob Dylan's legendary tour The Rolling Thunder Review.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

Burnett's depth of knowledge of American popular music is frequently sought after in Hollywood, and you can see why very clearly in Crazy Heart. The original music, which in the film is said to be written by Bridges' character Bad Blake, is the driving force of the film and what gives the film its authenticity. The fact that most of these songs are not a reflection of anyone's reality and were made up to shape a fictional character was a delight to watch--"a walking contradiction," as Kris Kristofferson might say.

BAD BLAKE would certainly fall into that category. He is a songwriter with quick wit and emotional depth, but one who hasn't written a song in decades and is stuck performing in bowling alleys, where the patrons don't stop bowling when the concert starts. His band is a mix of whatever can be thrown together from the local music scene.

His manager has stopped paying his bar tab, so he trades song requests for drinks to feed his addiction to alcohol, justifying it with the adage: "I learned long ago that if you don't give the people what they want, they won't want anything." After his performances, he's usually able to find someone who wants to sleep with the Bad Blake, but the name recognition skews much older since he hasn't written a song in years.

Review: Movies

Crazy Heart, directed by Scott Cooper, starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaall.

Stumbling into one of the hundreds of tour stops he makes in a year, he hears the sound of a well-played keyboard, and hope springs forth from him once again. He knows a good piano player when he hears one, and it may be that the gig on this night will hold some redemption for the weary musician and his weary audience.

This piano player is played by the tragically underused Rick Dial, who was given his first role in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade at the age of 40. In every role he's been given, he brings an everyman's wit and charm that plays directly in the face of the often-used working buffoon in Hollywood. All too often, we see head-scratching bumpkins infest movies that take place in the Deep South, and Dial has made a career out of the antithesis.

His part in this film, like most of his other parts, is brief but transcendent. It is through Dial's character that Blake meets Jean, a younger single mother who is trying to make a career as a journalist. She interviews Blake briefly before a show and then attends the "table thumping smash" of a bar show (another Kristofferson line).

The bar show is a fantastic scene, showing Bad Blake feeling it--feeling the redemption that music offers when you aren't sure what's missing, but know that it's something; feeling the thrill of the crowd all gathered to forget the misery of the workday and itching for him to make them forget; feeling the longing eyes of a person in the crowd who just might be the one.

When the camera pans over the stage, you'd swear it was Waylon Jennings at the mic, with his dark sunglasses, cowboy hat, long greasy hair, goaty beard, handsome face and out-of-shape body. The sweat pours off him, and the movie audience can truly feel the honkytonk.

Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is attracted to the older man and probably feels more comfortable about it after that night's performance.

AT THE same time that all this is happening, Bad Blake's protégé, Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell, has offered him a lucrative gig opening for him in a 15,000-seat pavilion. There are ill-defined tensions between Blake and Tommy that have to do with Tommy making it big while Blake now has to drive to his own shows in his own truck.

The choice that all artists face between "selling out" and "doing it your own way" is played out in these two characters in a mostly familiar, but interesting, way. When Blake swallows his pride and makes it clear that he would do a record with Tommy, Tommy says his contract won't allow it, but that he'd love a few of his songs.

After telling him he hasn't written anything in years, he tosses a country music insult at his cowboy boots, asking, "Did the salesman threaten to shoot your dog?"

Blake's hard-traveling causes him to break his leg in an car accident, and Jean offers to take care of him. Here, Blake grows close to Jean's child and begins writing songs again, writing what he calls his greatest song in Jean's bed. His drinking becomes a problem for Jean, and they part ways when he heals, with the intention of seeing each other soon. His addiction persists and becomes even stronger in Jean's absence.

Through a good friend and a somewhat clichéd "rock-bottom" sequence, Blake shakes off his addiction, and we are able to hear his greatest song called "The Weary Kind." It is a guitar-picking, melancholy country song dedicated to making your own path through life, not at the expense of others but at the expense of yourself.

Glorifying the risk-takers and encouraging them with, "This ain't no place for the weary kind / pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try." Rugged individualism for sure, but with a nod to solidarity among those of us who are forced to go it alone; a song from the bottom, for the bottom.

Harlan Howard, who wrote over 3,000 country songs, was asked to define country music. He famously stated, "Country music is three chords and the truth."

Like a great country music song, Crazy Heart isn't going to surprise anyone with its artistry. But what it tilled up from this familiar ground is a moving testament to hope and perseverance, and an homage to a genre of music that, while riddled with contradictions, has played an always noteworthy role in defining popular culture.

Further Reading

From the archives