If you question actor-director Kevin Costner's understanding of the power of country music, keep in mind that he's the guy who came up with the idea to have Whitney Houston sing Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." But more about that later.
At the moment, Costner is promoting a more personal musical concept -- a new album with his band, Modern West. Released last week by Universal Republic/Universal Records South, Untold Truths is a blend of roots rock and country music that Costner has been working on for years with a core group of musicians that includes guitarist-vocalist John Coinman and bassist Blair Forward.
They made a big splash in Nashville in the days leading up to last week's CMA Awards. In addition to a heavy schedule of interviews, Costner and the band performed on the Grand Ole Opry, played a gig in a small honky-tonk on lower Broadway and headlined a free outdoor concert in front of the Sommet Center in downtown Nashville.
Costner has numerous film credits, including his work as actor and producer of Dances With Wolves, the 1992 film that won him Academy Awards as best director and for best picture. Before his film career began taking off, he met Coinman in an acting class in Los Angeles and quickly realized they also shared a love of music. Teaming with Forward, they started writing and playing music in a band they called Roving Boy and released a hit single in Japan after one of their songs was used in a beer commercial.
"We wrote this one little song called 'I Want to Live in Tokyo,'" Costner said during a recent visit to CMT's offices in Nashville. "Some people heard that song and paid us something like $500,000 for it. The guys said, 'Let's make a record.' The guys never had any money. I split the money evenly with everybody in the band. Nobody had ever made $100,000 before."
Even after he became a major film star, Costner and his friends continued to work together on their music. Costner's wife encouraged him to devote more time to his music, but he became more charged up about it after performing informal concerts in various cities he's visited while on location for film shoots. One of those was a sold-out show in 2006 in Shreveport, La., at the Municipal Auditorium -- the same stage where Hank Williams and Elvis Presley performed on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.
"That was very emblematic of why I started to do music again," Costner said. "I find myself all over the country, and when I want to go out, a lot of time it ends up being a lot of handshaking and autographing. I thought, 'How about when I get to all these places, why not just go play music. And if you want to be around me, you can be there and I can be here, and by the end of the night, we'll have talked on some real level.' And that's where that started."
Costner grew up in Southern California, listening to a wide variety of music, including Cream, the Doors and Motown acts. "But there was also the Four Seasons and the Association and all the duo groups," he said. "We almost hired the Doors at our junior high for $100. I remember their name coming up, and we just didn't have the money. Our budget was something like 50 bucks.
"What was odd is that when I would make a song myself, knowing that I loved all that music, they would come out similar to what you hear on Untold Truths. There's this country lilt. I think it's a function that my family is from Oklahoma and came out [west] during the Dust Bowl. I grew up with every story that was about that. So while I liked the Temptations, it seemed like every time I would do a song, it would be something else."
Most of the songs on Untold Truths have a cinematic quality, and three of them actually appear in the soundtrack for his latest film, Swing Vote. The lyrical themes also tend to center around a sense of restlessness, particularly on tracks such as the first single, "Superman 14."
"I moved a lot," he noted. "I went to four different high schools, so I was used to thinking that this was my best friend -- and then I was going somewhere else. I've never been to a high school reunion because I don't have a place that was mine."
One of the most powerful songs on the album is "5 Minutes From America," written in Shreveport while filming The Guardian shortly after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. It's the story of a man desperately escaping the hurricane with two children when his car breaks down and his cell phone goes dead.
"There was probably 20 or 25 people on the film crew that had lost stuff," he said. "Everybody on the crew knew somebody who had lost stuff. ... There are two things in the song that are really highlights for me. There was the idea of telling people to go to Houston -- "there's a lot of you there" -- just very dismissive. And also the idea of keeping up with the Joneses. We always have this thing that people can just hustle more or pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And it's not necessarily true. Some people can't do that. They're tired, and some insurance company says, 'The hurricane didn't do it, the wind did it' or 'It was a flood.' So '5 Minutes From America' was about that."
Recalling his experience as the producer (and co-star) of the 1992 film, The Bodyguard, Costner says he didn't detect any great enthusiasm when he insisted that Whitney Houston sing the Dolly Parton song. Among those responding were Arista Records chief Clive Davis and the other executives from Houston's label.
"When I said to Whitney, 'You're gonna sing "I Will Always Love You,"' the ground shook," Costner recalled. "Clive Davis and those guys were going, 'What?!'
"I said, 'This is a very important song in this movie.' I didn't care if it was ever on the radio. I didn't care. I said, 'We're also going to do this a cappella at the beginning. I need it to be a cappella because it shows a measure of how much she digs this guy -- that she sings without music.'"
It was a pretty good decision. The Bodyguard soundtrack won a Grammy for album of the year and has now sold 17 million copies. Houston's recording of "I Will Always Love You" has sold another 4 million copies and won her Grammys for record of the year and best pop vocal performance by a female.
At a concert in London earlier this year, Parton introduced her composition by saying, "This is the song that won't die, and I have to thank Whitney for making me a lot of money with it."
Not surprisingly, Parton has also expressed her gratitude to Costner.
"She said something to me off the record, so I won't ever repeat it, but it was so beautiful, and it was so Dolly," he smiled. "It was generous and it was funny -- everything that she is -- but it was a big thank you. It was a big, fat thank you."