Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow scored a surprise Top 40 country hit last year with “Country Strong,” the empowering anthem she delivered live on the CMA Awards. The invigorating track is a focal point of her new movie, also titled Country Strong and co-starring Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund.
Asked by CMT Insider host Katie Cook about her memorable single, Paltrow replied, “I would describe the song as a kind of soulful modern country song. It’s about personal strength and falling back on your roots and knowing who you are, where you’re from and where you want to go. Your past — your foundation — really makes you capable of being strong and overcoming obstacles.”
Not long after completing the movie in Music City, Paltrow chatted with Cook about portraying faded country star Kelly Cantor, working with McGraw and what she learned from diving into Nashville’s diverse music community.
Cook: You’ve talked about how, musically, your parents gave you a great foundation by raising you with lots of music, but also just emotionally.
Paltrow: Yeah, my sort of “country strong” foundation is that my parents were incredibly loving and very focused on the family unit and the family values. That ground that I grew up on, that’s what’s allowed me to go forth in my life and take on challenges and do crazy things like try to get on country radio.
That was amazing. Vince Gill, to me, has the most beautiful voice ever in the entire world, and I couldn’t believe it. While we were in the studio recording, Byron Gallimore our producer was like, “I think Vince Gill should sing on this with you. He would have the perfect voice for this.” And I was thinking, “What?! That would be insane!” And he agreed to do it and it sounds amazing. I love Patty Griffin and actually saw her in concert years ago with John Prine. I couldn’t believe she was singing on it. It’s incredible.
That’s very cool. When you were considering the role of Kelly Canter, did you know from day one, “I want to do all my own singing on this”?
Yes, definitely. It’s so hard for me to actually do a movie these days because I’m home and I want to be with my kids, and I’ve kind of agreed to myself that I’ll do one movie a year as long as it’s not too many days away from home. … So I want the things that I focus on to pose real challenges and make me stretch in all directions, so that when I come home, I’ll feel fulfilled. When I saw how much singing there was, I thought, “Oh, I’m up for this challenge. I really am.” I was really excited to kind of study country music and fall in love with it in the process.
Kelly is a character that is very troubled, but also very talented. We have a few characters like that in the real world of country music. Did any singers come to mind that made you think, “She’s a lot like Kelly.”
Kelly has these two kind of very different sides to her. One side of her I thought was a lot like Faith Hill. She aspired to be like that, but there was a Courtney Love part of her, or a Shelby Lynne part of her, that was fighting demons. She’s incredibly talented and brilliant like those women, but you can see when an artist is like overcoming something. That was what I found so interesting about her. We all have demons that we’re trying to overcome and some take the shape of a drug addiction or whatever. But in her case, she was in the process of fighting demons.
Are there any other singers that you looked to?
I really love Miranda Lambert. I really love the way that she sings, and I focused a lot on Faith for her soulfulness. Also we have a similar physical type, so when I was studying the physicality of country singers, she made me think, “Well, this is possible,” because I could [see] how she physicalizes stuff, then I ended up finding my own way of doing it.
Did you like working with Tim?
I loved working with Tim. He’s great and he’s a really, really talented actor. I was blown away by how good he was. I just didn’t expect it. Not that I didn’t think he would be good, but I didn’t expect him to be as good as he was. He’s very gifted. He’s a very talented actor.
He’s said that you and Faith became buddies during the filming as well.
Yeah, I love her. She has become a really good friend of mine. She helped me so much and continues to give me advice about singing and singing live and country music. We have a lot in common: We both have musician husbands and kids and we like furniture, so we have a great time together.
What did you learn about country music from your time spent in Nashville?
A lot of things. First, one of the things that was really eye-opening to me was there’s the songwriter, and then there’s the singer — and then there’s also the singer-songwriter. Where I’m from, or what I’m exposed to, is that a band writes all of their own music and that’s what defines them as a band. I thought it creates such an amazing atmosphere when you have artists who want to be singers and performers and interpret songs, then you have songwriters who lack that [performing] ambition for themselves, like Hilary Lindsey. She is one of the best writers around and wrote a song for the film that I love. She could easily be a huge star. Her voice is crazy. She’s beautiful and she’s incredibly talented, but she just chooses to be a songwriter. I think it creates such a nice atmosphere of collaboration and support, so that was one thing.
The other thing that absolutely blew me away was the quality of the musicians in a session. When we were recording “Me and Tennessee,” the song at the end that Tim and I play, to hear those musicians like the way they interpreted the song and just how genius they were. … It was amazing to see that level of talent everywhere.