How TV Show ‘Yellowstone’ Created Its Gritty World With Country Music – Rolling Stone
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How TV Western ‘Yellowstone’ Created Its Gritty World With Country, Americana Music

With a keen-eared music supervisor and songs by Ryan Bingham, Whiskey Myers, and Chris Stapleton, the ranch drama’s music is as dusty as its setting

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner stars as ranch owner John Dutton in 'Yellowstone,' a series that is using country music and Americana to underscore key scenes.

Danno Nell

When Yellowstone‘s music supervisor Andrea von Foerster visited Nashville last summer to research the popular cable series, she left with a newfound clarity about the show’s country-music soundtrack. To von Foerster’s ears, rough and gritty beats put the western back in country, underscoring the reality of life in the modern West.

“Nothing against pop, but we’re not interested. Our country is more red dirt and Americana. Good ol’ whiskey drinking or outlaw country,” von Foerster says. “We seek artists who are under-represented. We go for the best fit. All of this breaks our musical constraints wide open.”

Since Yellowstone — which airs its second-season finale Wednesday night — premiered on the Paramount Network in June 2018, the series has done exactly that, shining a light on a diverse group of country and Americana artists from mainstream names like Chris Stapleton, Emmylou Harris, and Midland to the more niche but on the rise Whiskey Myers, Blackberry Smoke, and Whitey Morgan.

For the uninitiated, Yellowstone is like Game of Thrones set in Montana, but instead of flights of fancy on dragon-back it dives into complex real-world issues. Centered around Kevin Costner’s cutthroat rancher John Dutton, the show explores the delicate tensions between family, land owners, government, Native Americans, developers, and Mother Nature. They’re either all at war with one another, or reorganizing alliances every time the winds shift.

Part of the magic of the series is in the way it uses music — and even musicians themselves — as a character. When Dutton’s daughter Beth (the fierce Kelly Reilly) asks her father whom she should fight to protect their family business, he growls, “Everyone,” while the percussive stomp of “Trouble About My Soul” by Texas country quartet the Trishas rises to take the place of a heartbeat. Likewise, when Dutton shares a vulnerable moment with his aging father, Stapleton’s “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” sets a distinct mood.

And when Evelyn Dutton praises the innate strength of Beth (“If [men] were responsible for giving birth, the human race would not have lasted two generations”), it’s reflected in the strong women of the soundtrack: Maren Morris and Savannah Conley, among them.

Two of von Foerster’s selections are particularly impactful. Lainey Wilson’s “Workin’ Overtime” accompanies a bull as it goes on a revenge rampage in a local bar. Then Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn” plays under a pivotal love scene.

“I had [‘Slow Burn’] in my back pocket, waiting for the right moment. I swore I would set myself on fire if we didn’t use it,”  says von Foerster. “I prefer music by tough, spitfire women who have substance and grit.”

Honey County, the Los Angeles-based trio of Dani Rose, Devon Jane, and Katie Stump, has experienced its own slow burn to success — leveraging their exposure from the series to go farther, faster. The group timed the release of new single “Under Your Influence” with its corresponding Yellowstone episode and earned placement on Apple Music’s “Hot Tracks” playlist, as well as exponential streaming gains on Spotify.

The Texas country-rock band Whiskey Myers have seen a similar boost, not only because of the heavy use of their songs in the series, but from a well-placed, if on-the-nose, cameo: performing onstage in a scene set in a bar. According to the group, who will release their new self-titled album next month, three of their previous albums catapulted into the Top 10 on iTunes after their music was first used in an episode. “As our fan base continues to grow along with our new music, it’s been really cool to have this visual representation to supplement the songs. There’s a natural match between the show’s storyline and our lyrics, which is why it resonates with people,” the group said in an email.

But it’s Ryan Bingham who has had the greatest exposure from Yellowstone — and not just for his music. The New Mexico singer-songwriter, who won an Oscar for the Crazy Heart original song “The Weary Kind” in 2010, has a recurring role on the show. Playing a conflicted ranch hand named Walker, Bingham has distinguished himself as one to watch, informing his character with elements from his own life, including his past as a bullrider and his gift with a guitar. When Walker strums the instrument onscreen, it’s a natural extension of Bingham, not gratuitous exhibition.

Bingham’s songs also pepper the soundtrack, with “Sunrise,” “All Choked Up Again,” and the rhythmic “Bread & Water” underscoring key scenes. The music that surrounds the cowboys isn’t just rough-hewn Americana, however. Music supervisor von Foerster chooses an elegant mashup of country, metal, and even rap. “The bunkhouse is our greatest source of levity on the show. We tracked Casey Donahew, Whitey Morgan, Blackberry Smoke… none of which are associated with traditional country,” she says.

Staying in line with authentic musical tastes per character set, von Foerster also pushed the boundaries of typical soundtracking by featuring Native American artists like MC RedCloud, Drezus, and Joey Stylez. “Save Your Soul,” by Stylez and featuring Blackkiss, kicked off the entire series — a most unexpected beginning to this redefined Western.

Still, von Foerster’s musical choices aren’t made to define time and place or even tell the viewer how to feel. Rather, it’s carefully curated to simply make them feel. And emotional attachment seems to equal ratings. During Season 2, Yellowstone achieved status as the most-watched original cable show and the highest rated among adults aged 18-54.

Von Foerster credits that success to series creator Taylor Sheridan, a “real deal cowboy” whose own musical tastes run deep. As a team, they constantly introduce each other to new music, working under the mandate they declared upon first meeting: while Yellowstone may reside in the country-music vein, it is the musical opposite of ABC/CMT’s Nashville, more crunchy guitars than polished pop.

Case in point: one of the most poignant placements in Yellowstone came in the form of a quiet, haunting hymn — Mary Gauthier’s stunning “Mercy Now.” Far from anything poppy or mainstream, it soundtracked the series’ emotional Season One cliffhanger in which Costner’s character was forced to reassess his own power.

“When you go to war with someone, you want them emotional,” Beth Dutton acutely warned in one episode. Thanks to Yellowstone‘s multilayered soundtrack, it’s been impossible to be anything but.

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