By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun
5:43 PM EDT, March 30, 2012
Kevin Costner, a superstar for two dozen years, hasn't had a big film hit in years. But overseas and out of camera sight, he's been renewing connections with international fans — as a singer.
Releasing CDs in Europe while performing on three continents, he's won a global following as a country-tinged rocker, punching out songs that fit his native-Californian, rambling-child-of-the-'60s spirit. And now he's bringing it all back home.
Costner and his band, Modern West, are putting the final touches on a concept album inspired by the History Channel miniseries, "Hatfields & McCoys," a three-night dramatization of the epochal feud starring Costner as "Devil" Anse Hatfield, airing Memorial Day weekend. Now they're going on the road, including three stops in Maryland: Tuesday and Wednesday at Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis and Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
"I didn't start doing the music with a gigantic endgame planned out," he said.
Yes, the music part of his life is building: Modern West music backs the "Hatfield & McCoys" trailer and will be used on the making-of and documentary extras when it comes out on DVD/Blu-ray. But, he said, "Getting on TV with the music was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't even sure how I was going to feel about playing it."
"I started entertaining with music just because I wanted to do it, with no idea of making a record or touring," he said. "And that's always been the best approach — doing something just because I want to do it."
The singing began back in the 1980s. During his first flush of stardom, he and his first group, Roving Boy, released a single and LP in Japan. In 1988, Costner was riding such a streak at the box office — with "The Untouchables," "No Way Out" and "Bull Durham" — that the Los Angeles Times took notice of his record sales. The newspaper noted that Costner's single hit No. 1 on Japan's foreign record chart. It managed that feat by selling just 13,000 copies. (The single also backed a Suntory malt beer commercial.)
Unfortunately, the rest of the article scared Costner off singing in public. It quoted L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn, who said, "If Costner were starring in a musical where it was crucial to the plot that the audience believe he's a really good singer, the producers would have to think about dubbing his voice."
"It didn't shake me up in the sense of me being afraid of criticism," Costner said, "and I hope that person doesn't take pleasure in my admitting that he chased me out of it. But I had a young family and was building an acting career, and I already knew I wanted to direct [he'd win an Oscar for directing 'Dances With Wolves' in 1990]. I didn't want it to have any kind of effect on the people around me, and I thought, 'Who needs this BS, and do I need this double career?'"
His second wife, Christine, thought he shouldn't have stopped the music. She stumbled across it not long after their marriage in 2004 and prodded him into hooking up with his core compatriots — Tucson, Ariz.-based songwriter-guitarist-vocalist John Coinman, who'd also worked with Costner on "Dances With Wolves," and bassist-vocalist Blair Forward. They gathered three other musicians to make up Modern West.
Since then, they've put out three CDs — one, "Untold Truths," with a U.S. company, and the other two, "Turn It On" and "From Where I Stand," exclusively in Europe — and toured in locales including Istanbul, Paris and Rome. (They're particularly popular in Germany.)
On April 14, Costner and Modern West will stop at Fort Knox, Ky. They'll attend the dedication of a memorial to American soldiers killed in the downing of a Chinook helicopter west of Kabul, Afghanistan, last August.
Part of the ceremony will be their recorded version of Coinman's song "The Angels Came Down," an elegy for the Civil War dead. This Civil War reverie has found traction not just at home but internationally.
The song may begin with a man "walking all alone in the Southern rain," but, Costner said, the key line comes when the angels "left no one and placed no blame. The Civil War was about placing blame, and pointing fingers, and revenge, and you see that going on today all over the world," whether in the Middle East or Central and Eastern Europe. ("Hatfields & McCoys" was filmed in Romania.)
"Famous For Killing Each Other" — that's the title Costner has thought up for his Hatfields & McCoys album. The story of the feuding clans in the West Virginia-Kentucky borderland is rooted in the same war that inspired "The Angels Came Down": the Hatfields of West Virginia fought for the Confederacy, the McCoys of Kentucky for the Union.
"There's a lot of killing, a lot of violence and not a lot of remorse," Costner said. "It's unrelenting that way. The Civil War and all the lines that separate men and their ideas and philosophies have everything to do with the Hatfields and McCoys — and so does old-fashioned jealousy."
After playing "Devil" Anse Hatfield, Costner got the chance to depict a benign American patriarch: Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent/Superman's adoptive father, in "Man of Steel." The actor thinks he found a way to make the character his own.
"I played with it quite a bit," he said."I thought of what it was like for Jonathan Kent to know Clark had a biological father, a DNA father, even though Jonathan was the man who was raising him. ... I played him jealous, and I hope that brought a bit of humanity or reality to it."
If his interpretation clicks, there may be some California karma at work. In one of Modern West's first numbers, Costner sings "I feel like Superman flying over muddy rivers / Counting everything from 1 to 14 / Over roads where the sunflowers grow."
He's too old to play Superman. But as a superstar comfortable in his own weathered skin, he's proud to bring new life to a superhero's dad.
If you go
Kevin Costner and Modern West perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Rams Head on Stage, 33 West St. Annapolis. $85. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadonstage.com. The band also plays at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $35-90. Call 301-581-5100 or got to strathmore.org.
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