Two of Americana music’s most esteemed singer-songwriter-performers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, landed their first Academy Award nomination for original song with the delightful “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” from Joel and Ethan Coen’s Netflix film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” In the western anthology, the song is heard as a duet by the actors after white-clad gunslinger Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is outdrawn by black-clad younger cowboy “The Kid” (Willie Watson), and the dying Buster floats up into heaven. ¶ After this interview took place, it was announced that all five original song nominees will be performed at the Oscars. Welch and Rawlings will take the stage with their song on Oscar night and have released a recording of their version as well.
At what point did you and David get the song instructions?
Welch: Joel and Ethan wrote and collected these ideas for the shorts a number of years ago and mentioned they were westerns. Joel asked us if we’d write a song if they needed a specific one: “Ummm, yes!” (laughs). Later we got a script, and they gave us three vignettes; Buster Scruggs, the James Franco piece (“Near Algodones”) and another one.
There was a more nuts-and-bolts conversation about what they needed the song to do: be sung between two singing cowboys, one who is younger and faster and better-looking and had just gunned down the previous titleholder. They both needed to sing it, and, furthermore, they needed to continue to sing it as one of them is floating up to heaven. And that was really all they told us. They said: “They go out in the street, they have a duel, they sing.”
Take it away … what came next?
Welch: So they gave us a nice long time — a few months, and this idea just kind of gestated and sat in our heads. I was driving with Dave — we drive across the country more than anybody I know, we crisscross from Nashville to L.A. and back all the time. It was my shift at the wheel, a dawn shift in New Mexico, and I thought, “This is a wonderful time for me to think about this song as I’m driving through the desert landscape at the pearly hour.” So I tried to think, and that’s when I came up with the title: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” So I lodged that away and thought, “OK, as soon as we get home, David and I are going to get working.”
Did the song come out in pieces or as a long writing jam session?
Welch: I’ll say in that next week. And we didn’t run it by the Coens; Dave and I just wrote it and put all the good juicy fun cowboy lingo in it we could — yippee-ki-yi-yay, jingle-jangle, everything you’d want.
Rawlings: I remember Joel telling me one time how if he and Ethan think something is interesting or funny, they don't spend a lot of time considering whether anyone else will relate to it or understand it in the same way they do; they just assume there must be some deep universal underpinning that will stay the chaos that might be happening on-screen at the moment. You have to understand that the audience is listening and trying to find order inside what they're seeing and/or hearing, always. I think that's similar to how Gillian and I write as well.
When did the Coens first hear the song?
Welch: So we got it done and met Joel when we were in L.A., and with just one guitar, Dave played and we sang it for him, and he just said, “Perfect; it’s perfect.” We talked for a minute, and he kind of talked out loud — as if he’s starting to shoot it.
Rawlings: It was fascinating to see how Joel was directing lines from the song we had just played. He was visualizing setups and shots and angles; I’m sure because that’s how his mind works ….
Welch: And then he stopped and said, “OK, play it again.” We played it again, and that was that. There were no tweaks. Then we got a working tape to Tim and Willie, and then everybody came to Nashville.
Were you both at the recording sessions?
Welch: Yes. Dave and I are the band. And there’s a wonderful legendary studio musician named Charlie McCoy, and we’ve always wanted to work with him. As we started to plan this track, I think it was Dave’s idea — “don’t you hear harmonica?” So we call Chuck McCoy, and he came in and, I mean, there’s just no one better. All that had to happen before they started shooting in New Mexico. We really wanted to be there when they shot it, but we were in, you know, Saxapahaw, North Carolina, some place doing a gig. So we weren’t on set when they shot it.