When Robert Altman’s movie Nashville was released in 1975, it was hailed by the film critic Pauline Kael as “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” It’s a boisterous, ecstatic picture, with twenty-four characters swirling through Nashville’s country music scene over five days leading up to a political rally organized for a fictional presidential candidate no one ever meets. But like Jean Renoir in his pre-WWII French masterpiece The Rules of the Game, Altman painted an audacious social and political portrait of America that was perhaps more disturbing as a comedy than any tragic drama. Released in a sparklingly restored Blu-ray print by the Criterion Collection earlier this month, the movie remains a definitive American epic, one that is as legendary for the story it tells as for its original musical-narrative style.
Nashville is a rippling tapestry—it has no center. But at its emotional core is the singer-songwriter and actor Ronee Blakley. The only genuine musician in a cast of actors including Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, and Keith Carradine playing musical artists, Blakley plays Barbara Jean, the country star whose musical gifts are so radiant and performances so emotionally vivid, she feels more startlingly real to audiences than anyone else in Nashville. Her physical frailties—in the opening scene she returns to Nashville after a long hospital stay recovering from burns—mask a childlike fragility and need; her art is in turning all that tremendous vulnerability into song. Altman recognized that our most gifted artists don’t pacify audiences—they rouse and even sometimes disturb them. And that’s why, after Barbara Jean finishes her final number at the political rally in the final scene (a luminous reminiscence on childhood called “Idaho Home”), he had the quiet young loner Kenny (David Hayward) pull a gun out of his violin case and fire three shots at her. Five years before the presidency of a former movie actor (Ronald Reagan) and the assassination of a pop star (John Lennon), Altman eerily prophesied the dark intertwining of politics and entertainment in American culture.
Blakley’s nervy, raw performance as Barbara Jean is, for me, one of the most memorable in American movies, but although she received an Academy Award nomination and a National Board of Review Award for Nashville, she remains to the culture-at-large an unjustly forgotten treasure. Her first two albums, Ronee Blakley and Welcome, are both masterpieces, and she was at the heart of the ’70s folk movement, touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue alongside Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. As a singer, her voice is hungry, sensuous, devouring—she expresses a need for connection so deep that, like with the great blues artists, it completes itself. Blakley used her own songs to play Barbara Jean—she even wrote one of her own scenes, an unforgettable performance at the Opry Belle in which she sings two numbers (“Tapedeck,” which appeared on Welcome, and “Dues,” originally written for Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, which she scored in 1971) and then loses herself stumblingly in a thread of childhood memories, as she tries and fails to finish her set.
In Nashville, you observe in Ronee Blakley a truly great artist working at the height of her powers, as an actor, singer, composer and writer. That alone may hold the clue to why she has never received the credit or the movie career she deserves. Hollywood, like movie audiences, confused Blakley with the character she played, to whom she gave so much of herself—her achievement was to disappear completely into the reality of the film. If Blakley’s own talent logjammed her celebrity, it hasn’t stemmed her artistic output. In the past decade she has released new albums and directed the movie Of One Blood starring her daughter, the writer Sarah Blakley-Cartwright. When I spoke with Ronee Blakley on the phone earlier this month, she was in the middle of preparing a solo performance of poetry and song she was giving the following evening.
The Rumpus: You contributed a bunch of songs to Nashville that you’d already written and recorded on prior albums. When you write and perform a song like “Idaho Home” or “Dues,” are you creating a character in the song? Or does it feel more autobiographical?
Ronee Blakley: I always sing them as though they are autobiographical, even if they’re not, and most of my songs do come from something about me. For example I have a song called “Texas”—it was written while I was doing a movie in Texas, from that character’s point of view. It wasn’t me, it was a character, but I sing it as if it’s about myself.
Rumpus: In Nashville, was it difficult to transpose these personal songs onto the life of a character you were playing?
Blakley: Very interesting question. Not really—maybe for the same reason. “Dues,” for example, wasn’t written for anything in particular. I remember thinking of Linda Ronstadt when I was writing it. She did want to record it, but that didn’t happen. “Dues” preceded even my first album—it was in the movie I did for 20th Century Fox called Welcome Home, Soldier Boys. That’s where it made its first appearance. Then it went onto my first album, and then into Nashville.
Rumpus: You initially got involved in Nashville as a sort of musical consultant through Richard Baskin, since you had worked as a composer. And then you were cast in a lead role. How did your production background influence your work on Nashville?
Blakley: When I did the music for Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, I was behind the camera in the studio as a producer, and that’s where I learned to lay music into film. I had a wonderful music editor named Kenny Wannberg who taught me so much, and Lionel Newman at 20th Century Fox was my mentor. I learned about putting music into a movie without being the actor. Even though I wasn’t the one editing Nashville, I still had that sense. Richard Baskin wanted to hear all my songs, those that had been recorded and those that hadn’t, and then he selected what he thought would be great. My song “Bluebird” was sung by Tommy Brown and my song “Down to the River” was sung by a girl at one of the bars. And then I brought in “In the Garden,” which I didn’t write but I suggested to the production.
Rumpus: In your performance, you provide a glimpse into the relationship between a musical performer and her audience. In Barbara Jean, you get this performer who is completely genuine, completely generous, but she also has a child-like fragility. What kind of insights did you have into that conflict from your own experiences on stage?
Blakley: Barbara Jean’s fragility was internal. She had suffered and she had been isolated, probably due to illness and the rigors of touring. I think her manager husband may have kept her a bit isolated as well. Her truest friends were her fans, people she didn’t even know, and she gave them everything. I think her music was both an expression of her fragility and what brought it on, because the depth of emotion that is required when you work can sometimes draw you in. You may sometimes find yourself just about to cry. If you just take one foot in front of the other without any protection, you may end up falling off the fence. That’s what I think happened to her, and I thought it would be interesting for the audience to flush her out a bit. The line is very delicate and fine between being what one might call sane or insane, well or unwell.
Rumpus: I know you studied country singers like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to prepare for the role. What did you learn from watching them?
Blakley: You learn just everything. The things that are tangible, such as hair, make-up, clothing, style. You learn posture, attitude, inflection, tone of voice, vocabulary. You learn how a star behaves, how they misbehave, what is funny, what is revealed and what is concealed. But so much of it is intangible.
I remember after Robert Altman cast me, he said just one thing: “What are we going to do with your hair!” Because my hair was about shoulder length. And I said, “I know what to do.” I just put on a fall, which is what all the female country stars in those days wore. Now all the Hollywood girls wear extensions, but in those days, country women wore falls. I wasn’t about to lose the part over that!
Rumpus: Do you remember any of the other notes that Altman gave you?
Blakley: I don’t know if he ever gave me any others! I don’t think he did!
Rumpus: He just gave you a lot of freedom.
Blakley: Yes. Well, for example with the hair, nobody told me what to do. There was no wardrobe department coming in. I mean, wardrobe did it for me, but I let them know what it was and then they fixed it.
Rumpus: Speaking of the freedom you had to develop to the character, I was wondering if you could describe what went into creating the scene in which Barbara Jean has a nervous breakdown on stage.
Blakley: Well, I wrote that speech the night before we shot it, but I obviously had thought about it. It was true that my grandmother had false teeth that would click sometimes. She was a farm wife, and she and my grandfather had a beautiful farm when I was a child. I learned to call chickens from my grandmother. I really was living at the Haystack Apartments on the way out to Chattanooga. There was a thing with my mother when I was a child where I had learned to sing something and gone to a store… My mother was horrified by that!
You take these things and you use them as a germ, a kernel, a seed. As a writer, you look for someplace to start. Once you have a beginning and you’ve written the first two sentences, like Joan Didion said, nothing else will ever change it. I turned [these childhood memories] into a little child who’d just started a career and never stopped working. See what I mean? I made them into Barbara Jean as best I could.
Rumpus: To me it always felt that speech was a naked summary of all the feelings that motivate her musical performances. Like, you wrote in words what was inside the way she performed.
Blakley: Now you’ve made me cry! Of course that is what I tried to say. But to hear you say it is very rewarding and touching.
Rumpus: I was writing an article on Joni Mitchell recently about this idea of hers that singer-songwriters are sort of Method actors.
Blakley: That’s right, she has been talking like that recently.
Rumpus: I was wondering, since you’ve been a Method actor and you are a singer-songwriter, what you think of that comparison.
Blakley: Singers, musicians, and songwriters don’t want to use the word “acting” because we want it to be more real than that—we want it to come from us: naturally, truly, really. But the act of putting it across is a type of performance, because ten minutes before you go onstage and you begin singing that torchy blues song, you may just be drinking a glass of water and brushing your teeth and doing some deep breathing. When Bob Dylan sings “Tangled Up in Blue,” he’s not sobbing on the stage before he gets to that song. What you try to do is make it real, and what you try not to do is act. When it’s real, it’s because of the absence of acting—you want to be the thing.
Rumpus: Which was also what Altman was so great at as a director—getting those performances that don’t feel like performances.
Blakley: Yes, exactly. You don’t want to say somebody did a great job of acting. You want to say, “Where did he find that person? How did he get that factory worker to come out of the factory and be on camera?” You want to believe that person is real. But I do understand why Mitchell said that, and I know what she meant. She was an influence on me, and a dear friend of mine at one time, perhaps my dearest friend. I owe her a great deal. She’s a tremendous artist—a genius.
Rumpus: “Idaho Home” is one of the iconic songs of the film, and it’s also the song your character is singing right before she’s assassinated. Did you write that song about your own childhood?
Blakley: Almost all of it is from truth. It might be easier for me to say what wasn’t. By omission, you can create a false reality. I didn’t put in that song that my father’s a civil engineer. Some people may think it’s a country song about farmers. But the days when we would ride around in the car and sing his army songs, he was a student. I do use reality because I want my work to feel real, I want it to feel heartfelt. I don’t want to make it up and have it sound corny or unrelatable.
Rumpus: In some ways “Idaho Home” seems to prompt the killing. You see in the movie that Kenny is so affected by it. In your opinion, why is your character murdered?
Blakley: I didn’t feel that I had to know that, because my character was the one who was killed so she didn’t have to think about it. My instinct would be that his phone conversation with his mother shows that he had an unhealthy relationship with her. He seems like someone who ran away from home and took a room in Nashville. He may have been frustrated by his lack of success—he may have been a musician, or he may have come specifically with a gun in his case just to kill Barbara Jean. I do think he had his sights set on her. Perhaps he had her confused with his mother, or wished she were his mother. Or perhaps he had a crush on her and felt guilty sexually.
Rumpus: Given what happens to your character in Nashville, how did you feel in 1980 when you heard that John Lennon had been shot?
Blakley: It was like being sucker-punched. I was horribly grief-stricken. I remember my former husband, Wim Wenders, sent me a black-rimmed card he had made himself with a photograph of Strawberry Fields. When I read in The New York Times that it said it was like in the movie Nashville, I recoiled in horror. I just hope that it’s not true that the assassin was in any way influenced by the movie. If that was the outcome of the movie, it should never have been made.
Rumpus: The character you play is not explicitly political, yet the point of the movie seems to be that popular musical artists can’t help being political candidates in their own way.
Blakley: It’s true, isn’t it? I come from the old school of the left-wing 1960s radicals who believe in polis—the Greek word for village, town, or community. To me, the housewife who puts her teacups unwashed in the sink because her husband won’t wash them, as I have done, is political. Every act is political: the things you do, as well as the things you omit doing; the things you refuse to do; the things you fail to do; the things you say, as well as the things you don’t say.
With Barbara Jean, her self-knowledge was not involved with government. Her political act was as a humanitarian. It wasn’t to be conservative or liberal, or to talk about Washington, DC, because she wasn’t up on that, I don’t think. She may have had some opinions—she may have been more of a Christian conservative, for example. But Christian conservatives, if they are truly Christian, are going to be humanitarians. That’s why it’s difficult to imagine what has happened in this country to the Republican Party—because it is no longer the party of Theodore Roosevelt or even of Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater. The Christian Coalition and the Tea Partiers have seemed to erase the Christian ideal of caring for those in need.
Rumpus: How did you start getting involved as a feminist and an activist?
Blakley: I was brought up in the Christian church and I studied in the teachings of Jesus. I believed in caring for others and trying to be kind. It’s something I still have to work on every day.
By the time I was about ten, I had started to lose faith with church ways. I was educated in some ways by my high school government and history teachers. There was a man named John Gatch who allowed us to read outside of school—he lent me The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. When I was sixteen, I began to think outside the box of my small town. Not that the people in my small town are in a box—they’re not! There’s a brilliant college there, and I had brilliant teachers from that college. But in terms of a conservative upbringing, which I did have within my own family, I just began to question things and to think for myself.
Rumpus: I read an interview with Taylor Swift recently, in which she was asked for her views on feminism, and she basically very delicately avoided answering by saying she wasn’t educated enough on the issues to comment. Do you think we are still in the “It Don’t Worry Me” era, where popular art seeks to remove itself from the political arena?
Blakley: I don’t understand that about Taylor Swift, or about Joan [Mitchell]—how can she not say she’s a feminist?! People don’t understand what the word means. It simply means equal rights before the law. So many people think it has to do with being a lesbian, and that’s probably what Taylor Swift thinks. Or she thinks it’s about putting men down. You’ll have to ask Mitchell—why does she say that? She’s one of the strongest women ever, yet she will not embrace the term “feminism.” She’s afraid of it, afraid of what other people may think it means.
People need to get it straight: it means equal rights for everyone. When they tried to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in this country thirty years ago, I went to Florida and spoke on behalf of it to the legislature there, but it failed. Why? For one thing, I believe they confused it with homosexuality. They brought in gay males and gay females, and why shouldn’t they. But straight men should be supporting it. That’s what we need to pass these amendments, is for the straight men to get involved. Every straight man I know is a feminist. They wouldn’t be my friends if they weren’t.
Rumpus: It feels these days as though popular musical artists like Taylor Swift have to be almost bipartisan in their appeal, whereas in the ‘60s and ‘70s the music was actively involved in politics.
Blakley: Feminism has nothing to do with partisanship. Republican men and women also have to be feminist. We’re talking about human rights, the Constitution. Taylor Swift is doing a disservice because she has the power to change things. She’s young—she’ll get it.
Rumpus: Your daughter is a writer and an actor—I know you’ve just worked on a film project with her. What are the main differences that you see in how the culture treated young women artists when you were in your twenties and how they are treated today?
Blakley: There is a huge difference. My daughter could do and be anything, without having to fight to get through the glass ceiling. Without having it be so extraordinary. If my daughter went to produce a soundtrack for a movie, there would be nothing extraordinary about a girl doing it. When I did it, it was highly unusual. Producing is still largely a man’s territory, especially in music and even more so in movies. But Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Picture a few years ago. Things are changing. They need to change more. It should not be of any note that a woman does something, because women do everything.
Rumpus: On that note, what kind of role do you see for artists and the arts in politics nowadays?
Blakley: Artists are able to do well in the political arena because of fame, if only they can educate themselves. I can’t believe we have people in government who haven’t been to college or haven’t studied. This is not because I’m a snob. I don’t care how somebody gets their education, as long as they have one. We have to be grateful for the leaders we do have who have a concept of right or wrong, who are intelligent, well-educated, and who do mean well. And there are some. We just have to hope that they prevail. And if artists are among those, so be it.