Since the beginning of their musical and personal partnership Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have evoked the primitive, traditional roots of country music. One of those most important traditions, the cowboy song, is captured in the pair’s plaintive Academy Award-nominated tune, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” for which they’ve released their own recording.
Up for the Best Original Song Oscar at this year’s ceremony, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” closes out the first vignette of Joel and Ethan Coen’s acclaimed Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Starring Coen Brothers’ regular Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, the tale finds Buster going up against a younger cowboy, “The Kid” played by former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson. Buster’s fate is spelled out pretty plainly both in the song’s title and its opening verse — “Let me tell you buddy and it won’t be long till you find yourself singing your last cowboy song” — and there’s even a bit of yodeling included.
“Everything we would ever want to put in a singing cowboy song, we crammed into this song. They kind of did the same thing with the whole movie,” Welch told Rolling Stone Country. “Yodeling was not a mandatory part of the song. I think [Joel Coen] was really happy that he was going to get a bunch of ‘yippee-ki-yi-yay.’”
Welch and Rawlings will perform “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” on the live telecast of the 91st Academy Awards, Sunday, February 24th at 8 p.m. on ABC.