Gillian Welch had a brush with the Academy Awards universe back in 2000, when the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed O Brother, Where Art Thou? was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The blockbuster soundtrack, featuring contributions by Welch, largely consisted of rearranged old folk tunes, but didn’t net any musical nominations.
The relationship between the Coens and Welch and partner David Rawlings continued on, however, intersecting with the Oscars again nearly two decades later. On Tuesday morning, Welch and Rawlings, two of Americana music’s most revered songwriter-performers, scored their first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” from the Coens’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In one portion of the film, a seasoned gunslinger played by Tim Blake Nelson is outdrawn by younger cowboy “The Kid” — former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson — with fatal results. The two sing the song as a duet, as a heavenly choir ushers Nelson’s dying character into heaven. It’s packed full of imagery of campfires dimming, roundups ending and boots being pulled from tired feet, the same kind of visual iconography used throughout the sprawling, violent Buster Scruggs anthology.
“Everything we would ever want to put in a singing cowboy song, we crammed into this song,” says Welch. “They kind of did the same thing with the whole movie.”
What kind of direction did the Coen Brothers give you for writing for “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”?
They gave David and I the script, and they gave us the script of maybe two other of the shorts in the collection so we could gauge the darkness [laughs]. That’s one of the great things about working with them — they totally understand the very, very close relationship between the darkness and the humor. They also know us well enough by now that it’s best to give us a long lead time. We don’t do really well with like, “Hurry up!” and “We need it by Friday.” You see how they do what they do, and part of it is they really, really understand the people they work with and how to get the best work from them.
And then there was just a really basic conversation [with Joel Coen]. He was like, “Look, there’s the singing cowboy — he’s been around for a while. Now here comes the new guy. He’s cuter, he’s faster and he sings better. He’s just better. It’s the new model. He’s coming for him.” And, of course, it made it really special for us that onscreen, that younger, better, faster gunslinger was gonna be our dear friend Willie Watson. We know the singers we’re gonna be writing for. Joel just said, “Here’s the specifics of it. They have to be able to sing it together. They have to be able to sing it once Tim has been shot and is dead and is floating up to heaven.” This is a duet between singing cowboys, one of whom is dead. [laughs].
I’m guessing that’s somewhat different than your usual writing process.
It is! It’s a little bit more like a game. You have to use all the stuff you like. All the deeper parts of the artistry, all the kinds of words you like, all the sorts of rhymes you like. But it is a little bit more like a game, because you have to hit all these marks. It’s just a funny little puzzle. We’d had the script and we’d had that conversation for awhile and it just kind of sat around in our brains. And then funnily enough, David and I, we drive across the country all the time. We just drive from Nashville to L.A. and back to Nashville and back to L.A., again and again and again. We’ve probably driven across over 20 times for sure. And it’s just the two of us. We just keep switching off. We’d been in L.A. and we were driving back to Nashville. I think I had the dawn shift through New Mexico. David was asleep. I’m sure it was the landscape and, driving through, I thought, “I better take this opportunity to start thinking some cowboy thoughts.” That’s when I think I had the idea for the spurs for wings. That’s when I came up with the title. And that’s how we work: one of us will start it, and then from then on in, it’s all hands on deck. When we got home, we started working on it, knowing of course that we wanted them to yodel. Because why wouldn’t you have them yodel?
Was that insisted upon by the Coens?
No, that was actually a really happy thing. When we got the tune done and we ended up back in L.A., Joel was in L.A. We went over and took a guitar. We just sat down. Dave played the guitar and we sang it for him. Yodeling was not a mandatory part of the song. [laughs] I think he was really happy that he was going to get a bunch of “yippee-ki-yi-yay.” It was a really fun project to work on. Everything they do is just the highest quality and profound artistry.
There’s something really sweet and sad about the song, almost whimsical, but it does have that darkness you alluded to earlier.
Well, laughing is one of the great human coping mechanisms. The darker things gets, sometimes the funnier they get. The absurd. They certainly have a deep understanding of the absurd and the beautiful.
Do you know if you’ll get to perform it, or what they’re planning to do for the show?
I don’t really know. There are already little murmurings, like, “Are you gonna play? Are you gonna try to play?” I kind of feel like it would be nicer to have Willie and Tim do it — to not have us play but to have the guys who sang it, sing it. But whatever, there hasn’t been any discussion on that front yet. All I know is we’re gonna go, because the most fun we’ve ever had at an awards show was with the Coen brothers at the O Brother stuff.