Robert Duvall has a few inviolable rules when he’s making a movie: If there’s a horse to be ridden, he will ride it; if there is a dance to be danced, he will dance it, and if there is a song to be sung, he will sing it.
“Those three things I am going to do myself without a double, unless it’s a dangerous stunt,” the legendary actor tells Rolling Stone Country.
So when the script for his new film, Wild Horses, called for him to sing the western standard, “Cheyenne,” the 84-year-old stepped up to the microphone. He delivers an understated version of the 1906 classic, which appears on the movie’s soundtrack, out July 24th digitally and on CD October 16th.
“Cheyenne” has been a favorite of Duvall’s since he was a young child. He recalls his uncle, who had ranches in Idaho and Montana, singing the classic about a cowboy wooing his bride-to-be. . . with a twist: “My uncle used to like to drink a little bit. All I can remember is, ‘Shy Ann/Shy Ann, hop on my pony/There’s room here for two, never mind the alimony.’ That’s not the song at all!,” he says with a laugh. The real line is, “There’s room here for two dear/But after the ceremony.”
The Wild Horses soundtrack also includes a new recording of “When Fallen Angels Fly,” a song by one of the actor’s all-time favorite singer-songwriters, Billy Joe Shaver. The pair appeared together in 1997’s The Apostle, and Duvall’s wife, Luciana made a documentary about Shaver, Portrait of Billy Joe, in 2004. “He’s immensely talented,” Duvall says. “He’s a terrific natural actor. I put Billy Joe in The Apostle and the second day we were filming, he said, ‘Hell, I’ve got this deal licked.’ He was such a natural. He’s the best actor of all the country singers.”
Duvall wrote, directed and stars in Wild Horses, the tale of a rancher involved in a 15-year-old missing person’s case and the secrets that unfurl during the re-opened investigation. The film also stars Josh Hartnett, Luciana Duvall and fellow sometime-singer, James Franco.
Singing in film is, of course, nothing new for Duvall. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of recovering alcoholic musician Mac Sledge in 1983’s Tender Mercies. He also sang in The Apostle and 2009’s The Weary Kind. He says he doesn’t intentionally seek out roles that allow him to sing: “It’s a functional thing, really.”
But also a beloved hobby. More than 25 years ago, Duvall recorded an album with veteran producer Chips Moman, best known for his work with Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Tammy Wynette, as well as co-writing “Luckenbach, Texas” for Waylon Jennings. The album featured appearances by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Jennings. “Chip chose to never bring it out,” Duvall says, still sounding a little mystified as to what happened after all this time. He has no plans to record an album again, though admits he’d love to record the cowboy standard “Red River Valley.” “I’ve been singing [it] so much lately,” he says. “That’s one of my all time favorites.”
Among his favorite singers, “I like Merle Haggard a lot,” he says. “I worshipped Lefty Frizzell. Way, way back in the army, way back in the Fifties, I used to listen to Lefty and Webb Pierce.”
Duvall calls his Golden Globe-winning role as Augustus McCrae in the acclaimed 1989 TV miniseries, Lonesome Dove, “My Henry the V, my Hamlet. That’s the definitive part for me.” But he goes to lengths to credit To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies screenwriter Horton Foote and The Godfather and The Godfather Part ll director Francis Ford Coppola for their part in his six-decade success story. “I had a career aside from those two, but those two guys, who were very different, really helped my career. Those two gentlemen helped me a lot in the beginning.”
Looking forward, Duvall is eyeing a number of new projects, including the possibility of an adaptation of Steve Harrington’s World War I epic, Remember Ben Clayton for AMC, the network for whom he starred in 2006’s Broken Trail. “I’ve got a few left,” Duvall says, letting out an instantly recognizable laugh. “I’ve got a few left.”