Leading man 

Costner keeps it real with Modern West

Kevin Costner refers to it as "the cross-armed thing." He knows that there are people—perhaps a lot of people—who look skeptically at the fact that the Oscar winner now leads a country music band, and those people tend to be the ones who take cruel digs on his music, wait for him to stink up the stage or, at best, stand stoically at shows, alongside the girlfriend or wife who dragged them there, with their arms defiantly crossed. He gets it.

But what fans may not get about Costner is that he cares about all that. He sees and hears the criticism. And if you listen to the frontman of Kevin Costner and Modern West talk long enough, you get the impression those doubters once chewed up a lot of the otherwise confident star's headspace.

click to enlarge Kevin Costner sings and plays guitar in his country band, Modern West.
  • Kevin Costner sings and plays guitar in his country band, Modern West.

"That was one of the things I really had to figure out for myself before going out and doing this," says Costner from a hotel room in Iowa, mid-way through a nine-show tour that hits Missoula July 31. "Was playing live going to ruin me two or three days before I played, just worrying about it, and then two or three days afterwards hearing about it? Was I going to have these knots in my stomach about going out there? I mean, there's a baggage with me, a curiosity factor. I had to make sure [the music] worked. There are people who don't want to see it work, or people who just stand there with their arms crossed, like I said. I'm aware of that."

Costner doesn't look for sympathy—"I'm not a daisy. I'm not going to shrivel up at criticism"—as much as provide an explanation for why he decided to play barroom country rock at summer festivals rather than just continue to make blockbusters for the multiplex. Like his minor league character in Bull Durham, Costner's smart enough to know that he doesn't have to deal with this crap, but, in this case, committed enough to the music—think Sheryl Crow country meets John Hiatt vocals—to slog through it.

"The thing with me is, I don't even like doing the talk shows," he continues. "One or two days before I have to go on, I hate that I'm going to do it. I hate that I have to fly somewhere. I hate that I gotta pick out an outfit to wear. I don't like any of it. If the music was going to do that to me at this age, then why would I do it?"

The question stuck with Costner up until Modern West's first gig. After a few months of practicing, the band plugged in at a sports bar in Shreveport, La., and just played.

"It worked," says Costner, who sings and plays guitar. "I don't know how else to put it—it just worked. I realized I'm actually more worried about myself and whether [the music is] going to get over my bar."

It shouldn't be a surprise that it worked. Most know Costner for his roles in box office hits like Dances With Wolves, The Untouchables and Field of Dreams, but he has a background in music. Nearly 30 years ago, while he toiled in a Los Angeles acting workshop that also included would-be punk legend John Doe, Costner formed Roving Boy with fellow workshop attendees John Coinman and Blair Forward. The band recorded one album and made a mini splash in Japan—two songs ended up in a beer commercial, landing the trio a $500,000 paycheck.

But once Costner's acting career took off, Roving Boy was grounded. Then, a few years ago, Costner's wife, Christine, "cajoled" him to take up music again. Costner, who lives in Santa Barbara, started playing with three Los Angeles musicians, but they never clicked.

"I thought I was maybe dancing without my girl, you know? I submerged. I stopped," he says. "And Chris asked me again, 'What's going on?' It just didn't feel exactly right. She said, 'Why don't you just call John [Coinman]?' So, I called him just to see and he drove out. John just drove out from Tucson. We sat in the living room and played some songs and he stayed for the weekend."

With Coinman and Forward back at his side, Costner asked just three things of the new band—he wanted to play originals, he wanted to play live and he wanted it to be a collaborative effort. Costner got everything he wanted—and then some. After a series of successful concerts, Modern West convinced Costner to record an album, last year's Untold Truths, and to use his name on the marquee.

"I didn't want my name on the band," Costner says. "I'm not like Dave Matthews. I just wanted Modern West. But the guys know how things work, and I know how things work, and they asked me to put the name up there, so I did...I'm already sticking my neck out on the line with this shit, but there are some things I have to accept. I get it. I'm no dummy."

All of which puts Costner in the odd position of being the big-time movie star fronting a blue-collar country band. A tough sell, maybe, but he at least confronts it head-on. He deals with the comparisons to Billy Bob Thornton gracefully—"I get asked if I'm going to go off, but that's about it," he says, referring to Thornton going nuclear if an interviewer references his acting career—and relishes the chance to talk more music than movies. And what about answering those cross-armed skeptics?

"I'm going to accept the river I'm in right now," he says. "I feel really good about what we've done. When we show up on Friday, it'll be an all-original show of music that we wrote together and that I'm proud of. That's all that I asked for. The rest ain't up to me."

Kevin Costner and Modern West play the Wilma Theatre Friday, July 31, at 8 PM. $35–$50.

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