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Inside Sam Shepard’s Country Music Connections

From Merle Haggard’s music to his ‘Steel Magnolias’ co-star Dolly Parton, the late Sam Shepard was a friend to country music

Sam Shepard

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard died Sunday at his home after battling ALS. He was 73.

Amy Sussman/Getty

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard often brought the kind of prosaic dialogue to his plays that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place as lyrics to country songs, rife with minute details and charged with emotional weight. As an Oscar-nominated actor in feature films and television productions, the characters he portrayed were often the laid-back, laconic type, not unlike legendary country singers such as Merle Haggard, whose music Shepard incorporated into the action of his acclaimed 1983 play Fool for Love, later a feature film helmed by Nashville director Robert Altman. Shepard, who suffered from ALS in recent years, died at his home in Kentucky from complications from the disease. He was 73.

Remembered for his brief role as “Spud,” husband to Dolly Parton’s character Truvy Jones in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, Shepard once told a British reporter, “More than any other art form I know of in America, country music speaks of the true relationship between the American male and the American female… Terrible and impossible.”

“I was so sorry to hear of Sam’s passing,” said Parton in a statement. “What a nice man and what a great actor. I was honored to have him play my husband in Steel Magnolias. Rest in peace, my friend.”

From 1982 to 2009, Shepard was in a relationship with actress Jessica Lange, Oscar-nominated for her role as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams. Interestingly enough, he also starred with Lange and Sissy Spacek in Crimes of the Heart. Spacek, of course, had won the 1980 Oscar for portraying another country legend, Loretta Lynn. As for the country music Shepard enjoyed, in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview he cited Billy Joe Royal, Ricky Skaggs, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton and the Blasters among a few his favorites.

“I guess what I like is mostly country & western or else stuff that has a real blues feel to it,” he said. “As far as straight-up-and-down rock & roll goes, I don’t think there’s hardly anybody worth shaking a stick at anymore. Guys like Clyde McPhatter used to sing their tail ends off! Today I only have a little hope for Texas bands [laughs] … Delbert McClinton’s still doing some stuff … but melodically and rhythmically, it’s not what it was.”

Shepard, who co-wrote the 11-minute tune “Brownsville Girl” with Bob Dylan in 1986, also played banjo on Patti Smith’s 2007 cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

In This Article: R.I.P., Sam Shepard

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