Ronee Blakley wasn’t exactly an unknown when Robert Altman asked her to play the part of country singer Barbara Jean in his 1975 film Nashville, but she certainly wasn’t on most people’s radar for her film work. Before taking on the role that won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, she was predominantly known for her acclaimed self-titled 1972 album on Elektra Records. In the wake of Nashville, however, Blakley began to split her time between music and acting, bouncing between touring with Bob Dylan as part of his Rolling Thunder Revue and making films with the likes of Larry Cohen (The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover), Walter Hill (The Driver), and Wes Craven (A Nightmare On Elm Street).
Although Blakley continues to move forward with her work in both media to this day—she’s currently putting the final touches on the film Of One Blood, which she wrote, directed, and executive-produced, in addition to writing and performing its soundtrack—she’s in no way averse to looking back at her past accomplishments, as she does in the new making-of documentary for Criterion’s new Nashville DVD and Blu-ray.
The Dissolve: How did you first cross paths with Robert Altman?
Ronee Blakley: I met him one morning as a result of a phone call from Richard Baskin. Richard Baskin was the music director on Nashville. He was a friend of mine, he liked my first album, and he wanted me to come meet Altman, and show him some of my songs. And he told me to wear a dress. [Laughs.] So I did. I got my brother to go with me, so we went over to Westwood, and I went in and had some talks with Scotty [Bushnell], his casting director and co-producer. A bunch of people came by, and then Bob and I chatted, and we got on well. We played a lot of music. I had brought a little tequila, a small bottle in a paper bag, and then they sent out for more tequila and more beer, and we all partied and played music all day and talked music and movies. We talked about Key Largo, as a matter of fact.
The Dissolve: Altman was known for not doing auditions in the traditional sense.
Blakley: Well, at least not with me! [Laughs.] Plus, I wasn’t auditioning for a role in the movie. It was about my music at that time.
The Dissolve: What was your familiarity with him as a filmmaker at that point?
Blakley: He had filmed a movie on my street! I lived on Yeager Place at that moment, in Hollywood, and he had made a movie going up the elevator up by the Hollywood Bowl, to the apartments up there, with Elliott Gould [The Long Goodbye]. So I had physically seen him, even if I hadn’t met him, and I’d seen a couple of his movies, of course. Who hadn’t? I think I’d seen three of them, and I already thought of him as one of our greatest filmmakers, if not the greatest. But definitely one of the greats.
The Dissolve: At what point did he transition to wanting you in the movie?
Blakley: It was a couple months. I’d need to go back to my journals to find out the exact date, because I don’t remember. But what happened was that I then began hanging out with the crowd, and going out with Susan Anspach quite a bit. She was set to play Barbara Jean at that time, and we hung out in the recording studio. But then I had to earn a living—I wasn’t officially hired, even though it was certain that they were going to use my music—so I went out on the road to sing backup for Hoyt Axton. I went on a tour with him of the South. Or was it the Southwest? How far southeast did we get? [Laughs.] Well, we went to Memphis. I think that’s about as far as we got.
“And if you do have a scene like that, you want people to be moved. You want people to be horrified and moved.”
But we stopped in Nashville on the way—we were at the [Grand Ole] Opry—and all the time we were on the road, I was talking to Baskin on the phone, giving ideas and whatnot. And then Richard told me they were thinking of casting me. So when the big shots came out to Nashville, the money men, to meet with Altman, they came to see us at the Opry, and then I was on the road with Hoyt, down to Memphis… or over to Memphis. You know what I mean. To Memphis, anyway. [Laughs.] And then I got a call to return to Nashville. And I thought, “You know, something’s going to have to be decided on this right now.” Because that’s a lot of pressure to keep going. And I’m a bit of a Method actor, so I would try to be Barbara Jean, and that’s a bit of a strain. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just… I just wanted to know. But I didn’t have to ask or say anything, because he came and told me he had decided to cast me as Barbara Jean.
The Dissolve: Prior to that moment, what was your acting background? IMDB and Wikipedia cite your lone pre-Nashville acting credit in something called Wilbur And The Baby Factory.
Blakley: [Laughs.] Nobody ever asks me that! It’s such an obvious question, and no one ever asks me. I think they’re afraid to! I’ve never spoken about The Baby Factory. In fact, it’s a movie I’ve never seen! But I did see my little bit in it—somebody broadcast that or something—and I play a folksinger in that. It was a very small thing, and I did it for John Phillip Law. And before that, I had done an industrial film, and before that, I had done summer stock, and before that, I had studied at Juilliard and Stanford, and before that, I had done… Oh, I did plays at Stanford, and I did musicals when I was in high school and junior high.
The Dissolve: So you clearly had a background, but you certainly hadn’t been doing it full-time. How challenging was it for you to step into a film like Nashville?
Blakley: Well, it was very challenging, but in a good way. It was very challenging because of the way I was used for all the things I could do. When Altman used me, he used all aspects of what I was able to do, and that’s a wonderful feeling for any artist. It’s gratifying and rare.
The Dissolve: You said you’d been hanging around the crowd, but once you actually got onto the film as an actor, were you ever starstruck?
Blakley: Well, you know, I hung out with a lot of music stars—Joni Mitchell was my close friend, and I had sailed from New York to L.A. with her and [David] Crosby and [Graham] Nash—and when you do, you have to kind of forget that part of it, because you can’t be friends with people if you’re in a fan position. It’s difficult. So you may be an admirer of these great artists—and who isn’t?—but when you’re friends with them, or you’re working with them, you have to put that aside. I think the hardest person for me to do that with was [Bob] Dylan. And I did do it, because I did want the friendship, and I did want to work with him. You just have to put that aside a little bit. I’m sure they do know it. I know Kinky Friedman tells a story about Dylan where a woman was on an airplane with him and says, “I just can’t believe I’m sitting next to Bob Dylan!” And he said, “Well, pinch yourself.” [Laughs.] So to answer your question, I was respectful, but I didn’t behave in awe. I had to work with them.
The Dissolve: Was there any particular aspect that you can look back on as the most challenging?
Blakley: I mean, the most simple thing to say is the desire to be good. You know, the pressure or desire—whether it’s within or without—to bring your best effort, not only for yourself, but for the others who are counting on you. And even above and beyond that, just for the sake of art itself, to communicate to others. To express your humanity. It means something.
The Dissolve: Was it difficult to work with Allen Garfield? Not as an actor, but just because he played such a domineering character.
Blakley: You know, we only had one time where he went to Bob and said… Well, I should say that we were very close. We became so close that it was like he really was my husband. But Bob told me he did once say something about how he felt like I was telling him what to do, so I learned not to do that! If I ever really did it. I think I said, “What are you gonna do?” before our scene in the hospital, I think it was. But it was because I had a little plan about what I was gonna do! And then we did it, and it came out. But every situation is different, and he was such a brilliant actor, and so fine to work with. So fine.
The Dissolve: You also got to work with Scott Glenn pretty early in his career.
Blakley: Yes! And Scott was a doll, a sweetheart, a very good actor and a lovely guy. He brought so much intensity to his role, as he does to every role. We worked together again. I brought him down on a Western I did called She Came To The Valley. I don’t know if that’s on IMDB, but that’s a Western I did in Texas, and Scott, I brought him in as one of the two male leads on that. Him and Dean Stockwell.
The Dissolve: To jump back to Nashville, most actors tend to work best with Altman when they just put themselves in his hands, but was there any aspect of Barbara Jean’s storyline that, when you read it, didn’t necessarily ring true to you, or that you had questions about?
Blakley: No, but you know, I wrote a great deal of my role, and I was allowed to do that, I think, probably because I was originally on the movie as a writer. I think I was seen as a writer, so I was allowed to write… and I did! And he used what I did. A lot of what I did, anyway. In fact, I think there’s only one scene that I wrote that he didn’t use, if you don’t mind my saying so. [Laughs.] I think it was in the hospital room, in the hospital bed, and I was talking about a dream about my child, a child I had dreamt of having. But there was a television cut of Nashville that was done, and I was told that scene was used in it! When I asked Bob where that television version was, though, he didn’t know, and I don’t know of any way to get it. Is it on a shelf somewhere? Does anybody have it?
The Dissolve: You said you wrote the majority of the part, but, as with many of Altman’s films, that was within the film’s already-established structure, correct?
Blakley: Yeah, you could say that. That’s a very interesting way to say it, because, for instance, at Opryland—for the breakdown scene, it was just in the script that she would go to Opryland to sing. There was nothing in the script to be spoken, so I wrote the scene.
The Dissolve: You had the music background going in, but you weren’t a country artist. How familiar were you with the Nashville scene, such as it was, before you came aboard?
Blakley: Not at all. I was a part of the New York electronic-music scene of the late ’60s, when Robert Moog was just designing and creating his Moog synthesizer, and I worked with him and Gershon Kingsley in New York, and at Carnegie Hall, the first time synthesizers were ever used in Carnegie Hall, in January of 1970. Then I came out to L.A. because I joined a rock band called California, and when I began writing, my biggest influence was probably Bob Dylan. I’d say I was part of the L.A. scene. Whether it was The Byrds or Joni Mitchell or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was more early Americana, West Coast folk rock. These are small differentiations, and I don’t even know why we make them. But people do make these definitions. To me, it’s all one thing. Art is art. Creativity is creativity. It’s all one thing, and I don’t see the need to box it up. But some people do, and they’ll talk about the Nashville sound, the Austin sound, the L.A. sound, the New York sound, the Philadelphia sound. They’ll break it way down. So I was a fan, but I had never been to Nashville before.
The Dissolve: How did you manage to jump from the Moog to folk-rock? It seems like an odd transition, but it sounds like you made it rather quickly.
Blakley: Well, it was the same time. They were simultaneous. You know, we’re not just one thing or another thing. We’re all things. And taken as a whole, don’t forget that I come from the Northwest, I come out of country stock, my parents’ parents’ parents were farmers, so there is that in my blood somewhere. Even though my dad is a civil engineer, even though I went to Stanford, even though I studied voice and classical piano, and even though I went to Juilliard for graduate school, my druthers were to play rock ’n’ roll and be a writer. That’s what I wanted to do and be. And that’s what I then became. I still would love to go do electronic music. You know, I gave all that up, but now that I’m older, there would be nothing to prevent me if somebody called me and said, “Ronee, would you come and work on this? Would you come help me with this new piece?” I generally don’t think of myself as singing other people’s music these days, you see. I think of myself as not doing that. But if some serious composer were doing something at the L.A. Philharmonic, or something like that, I’d love to go be a part of it. Why not?
The Dissolve: So what did you think of the Nashville scene?
Blakley: Oh, gee, well, it was so different then. For example, I mean, I sat next to Minnie Pearl at the première in Nashville.
The Dissolve: Oh, that must’ve been fun, given how she felt about it.
Blakley: Oh, it was very fun. Ahem. [Laughs.] Yeah, it was fun! It was exciting. It was thrilling. It was all just amazing. But you know, how old would Minnie Pearl be today? Of that Nashville, all that we have left of those days is, who, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton? Tammy Wynette is gone, George Jones is gone, Johnny Cash is gone, Buck Owens is gone, Hank Snow is gone. So many of the greats are gone! Even Kitty Wells. Those are the sounds I think of when I think of original country music.
Or you can go back to Jimmie Rodgers or Montana Slim. I actually just recorded a song called “Little Joe Redux,” because I added choruses in on Montana Slim’s “Little Joe The Wrangler,” my dad’s favorite song, and I went and recorded it with Tony Gilkyson, guitarist for X, and Rusty Anderson, guitar player for Sir Paul [McCartney], who I discovered in 1979 when he played with me in my first movie (I Played It For You). That song was written in the 1890s! So we go back to the well, we drink from it, we love and revere those who taught us and gave their examples of song and voice, beat and rhythm, and we keep on going, because that’s what art is. You create from what you have at hand. You drink it in and absorb it and it becomes you, you create from that, and who knows where the path will lead?
The Dissolve: What were your thoughts when you discovered what Barbara Jean’s ultimate fate was going to be?
Blakley: What I did, as I recall, was ask my father how far back I would fly, being shot at a certain distance with a certain caliber of gun. And I tried to throw myself backward, and… I wasn’t expecting anyone to land on top of me. Altman didn’t warn me, or tell me that was going to happen. So when they did land on me, actually, my shoulder was under me, so it kind of tore my back and shoulder up a little bit. But, anyway, that was it, and I just tried to go about it in a methodical way, and a Stanislavskian way, and a Lee Strasbergian way.
The Dissolve: When the film was originally released, a number of critics used JFK as a reference point when discussing Barbara Jean’s assassination, but within a few years, it became hard to avoid likening her death to John Lennon’s.
Blakley: Well, I was very distressed—I don’t even know if that’s the word—when Lennon was killed. When I read the front page of The New York Times and saw that, I was just devastated. You never want to think that anything you’ve done can have any bad influence on anyone anywhere at any time, and my industry spends a lot of time trying to make sure that that isn’t thought to happen. You know, we go to Congress and everything else to say, “Movies don’t make people violent, people make people violent… Or guns make people violent… Or people make guns violent.” But we don’t like to think that we’ve done it. God forbid!
The Dissolve: Did you think in terms of the Kennedy parallel when you were making the film?
Blakley: You know, I might have, without remembering it today. There were so many assassinations, so there wasn’t just Kennedy on our minds. There was Martin King, there was Malcolm X, there was Fred Hampton, there was Bobby Kennedy. It was a way of life. Assassinations had become commonplace. They were still shocking, still horrifying, but we could no longer say we’d never had it happen to us before. You know, it was like a blow to the head or the stomach. Another one, and another one, and another one. And each one of them kind of knew they were in the crosshairs, and they said so. So whether Barbara Jean was like that… She may have had some inkling or some premonition. Many people on the stage do. Many people who perform in front of large crowds have that fear. I hope that wasn’t too dark! [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: It’s a scene about an assassination. It’s gonna get a little dark. Once you’ve seen the film, it’s a pretty hard scene to forget.
Blakley: And if you do have a scene like that, you want people to be moved. You want people to be horrified and moved. You don’t want people to shrug and say, “So what?”
The Dissolve: After the film was released, whether you put a lot of stock in what critics say or not, it seems reasonable to presume that anyone who read what Pauline Kael wrote about Nashville was probably beside themselves.
Blakley: You mean ’cause it was great? I think so. I know I kind of kvelled… and I’m not even Jewish! [Laughs.] I just threw myself on the sofa, I think, and wept. I mean, I was so… I was fulfilled. She just gave me the great words of praise that any artist would cherish.
The Dissolve: Do you remember your reaction when you found out you’d been nominated for an Academy Award?
Blakley: Well, I fell on the floor at the airport. [Laughs.] I did that for my brother, because I wanted him to laugh. He’s the one who told me, so I fell on the floor for him. But, yeah, I mean, it was a thrill that I wish I could have again one day. I’m sorry it only happened once!
The Dissolve: You and Lily Tomlin both got nominated in the same category, though.
Blakley: Yeah, people say that split the vote. Because if people liked the movie, they might want to vote for it, but when you have a couple of people to choose from, that can make it a little harder for people. Lily was so wonderful in the movie, so profoundly moving.
The Dissolve: Do you have a favorite song of yours from the film?
Blakley: I don’t know, I’m kind of torn between “Dues” and “My Idaho Home.” Most, uh, professional appreciators choose “Dues.” [Laughs.] You know, people like you or No Depression magazine. They wanted to put me on the cover and have “Dues” be the lead story.
The Dissolve: In the wake of doing Nashville, rather than jump into another film, you actually went back on the road, joining Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Had you decided you were just going to jump back into music, or were you contemplating trying to split your time between music and acting?
Blakley: Well, that’s a little bit of a two-parter, because on the Dylan tour, we actually shot a movie called Renaldo And Clara. [Laughs.] So I didn’t give up acting or music. But it was all improv in Renaldo And Clara. We shot it as we went on the road. We performed our music at night, then we’d shoot film during the day. That’s the way I wish I could live every day of my life. That’s the way I like to live! I like creating 24/7. I’m happy when I’m doing that, and that’s what that was. I didn’t have to make any choices whatsoever. Well, in fact, that’s actually not true, because I did have to make a choice.
I was set to tour with my band, and when Dylan invited me to come on Rolling Thunder Revue, I turned him down and flew down to Alabama to rehearse with my band, to whom I had a commitment. But they said, “No! Go! Tell him you can go! Go back and tell him!” So I went back to my motel and called New York information for the hotel, and sooner or later got the hotel, and Bob got on the line and he said, “Come back!” So he sent a car for me and a ticket for me, and I went back. We recorded “Hurricane” that night, and I had just met him 24 hours earlier, maybe 30 hours earlier, at The Other End in [Greenwich] Village! [Laughs.] In that time, I’d gone out, we’d all partied afterward, and then I went to the airport, got on the plane, went to Huntsville, went to Muscle Shoals, talked to the boys, went back to the hotel, went back to Huntsville, got back on the plane, went back to New York, a car picked me up and took me to the recording studio, and we recorded “Hurricane” that night. And from there, I was on the road with Bob.
The Dissolve: That sounds absolutely exhausting.
Blakley: It was! I couldn’t do it today! [Laughs.] Or I don’t think I could. You never know what you can do if you really want to.
The Dissolve: Looking at the credits of Renaldo And Clara is pretty staggering: a screenplay by Sam Shepherd, Mick Ronson as a security guard, Dylan playing Renaldo, and Ronnie Hawkins playing Dylan… All this and Harry Dean Stanton, too?
Blakley: Isn’t it amazing? And I’m playing Mrs. Dylan! [Laughs.] It’s incredible, the names and the talent. I think we were all going half mad with joy.
The Dissolve: The bigger question, though, is if you had any idea what was going on when you were making it.
Blakley: That was a harder one, because it was… [Hesitates.] Have you seen it?
The Dissolve: Only bits and pieces. Someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube a few years ago, but it’s since been taken down.
Blakley: Oh, I just wish you could see it. I love it. It’s vignettes. Vignettes tied in with the film, with an ongoing thread of Renaldo and Clara, who’s played by Sara Dylan. Helena Kallianiotes was also in it, and, of course, The Band. And it was a musical, in the sense that it cuts to songs. As you probably know if you’ve seen any of it, it’s filled with songs as well, and Bob was singing so great. He was so great at that time. A documentary is being made of it by Bob’s manager, and it’s said that [Martin] Scorsese is going to be pulling it together in the editing room.
The Dissolve: How did you find your way into music in the first place?
Blakley: I was given a piano when I was 8. And I was given ballet lessons, tap lessons. My mother is responsible for that. And my father loved to sing, although, as he says his brother-in-law said, “Ronald knows a lot of songs, but they all have the same tune.” [Laughs.] So my family was the kind where, when I was a little child, we’d go for rides in the car, and they’d sing songs, and that would be our entertainment. And I would ask Mother, “Mommy, how do you know how to harmonize?” And she said, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to one day. You’ll be able to do it, too.” And she was right.
The Dissolve: You continued acting in the wake of the Rolling Thunder Revue, playing The Connection in Walter Hill’s heist movie, The Driver.
Blakley: Oh, it was wonderful to work with Walter, and to play such a completely different character. In fact, I had to audition with Walter, in a way. I had to meet him personally before being cast, because he had trouble seeing the Barbara Jean lady as the woman arranging his bank robberies for Ryan O’Neal’s character. [Laughs.] So when I met Walter in a dark little bar in Beverly Hills, I had my secretary come with me and sit beside me for the entire thing, but Walter didn’t know the man sitting next to me was my secretary. I then talked with Walter the entire time without saying a word to my secretary, so when we both got up to leave, Walter’s face showed surprise. He could see that I was capable of pulling a trick on him without knowing it, showing that I could be cagey or whatever, someone who could arrange something secret. So I got the part!
The Dissolve: Right around that same time, you also got to work with Larry Cohen on The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.
Blakley: Oh, nobody ever asks me about that! Yeah, I did! My major scene is a big scene… Well, I call it a big scene. It’s my major thing in the movie, at the beginning. But I’m very impressed with what Larry did with it. I think he’s had a very interesting career, and he’s had a successful career, but he’s still under the radar somewhat. I think it’s a movie that should be brought out and seen more.
The Dissolve: It’s almost odd to realize you were in A Nightmare On Elm Street as well. That’s a long way from Nashville, to say the least.
Blakley: Well, it certainly is a different type of film, isn’t it? [Laughs.] And it’s getting ready to have its 30th anniversary. There are a lot of anniversaries coming up, with both Nashville and the Rolling Thunder Revue about to have their 40th. It’s just amazing that someone like you would be calling me and be interested in a 40-year-old film! But, yes, A Nightmare On Elm Street was a challenging movie in its own right, and certainly not a musical in any way. I definitely didn’t write my part for that one. Wes Craven was the writer-director, and he did not ask for anyone, or welcome anyone, writing his work. My acting choices were welcomed, and I contributed what I could in that vein, but I wasn’t asked or encouraged to write for that movie.
The Dissolve: You’ve done some writing and directing of your own. You did I Played It For You in the 1980s, and then more recently, you’ve been working on a project called Of One Blood.
Blakley: That’s right! But it’s still got to have one more tweak. In fact, I’m hoping to get on that today! But it’s got a prologue with Wim Wenders and Patrick Morrison, it’s got Sarah Blakley-Cartwright in the lead, it has Olivier Riquelme playing a French businessman, an armaments dealer, and it has Robert “Smokey” Miles as the father. It’s about a disenfranchised, disillusioned but popular young woman in Los Angeles, a poet who is dealing with the grief fallout from the death of her mother, a poet who’s trying to get across the sentiments and accomplishments of the goals of radical feminism, to equalize before the law all the women of the world. It’s especially concentrated the women of the Middle East. It’s a tiny, ultra-low-budget film about a very big subject. Oh, and I did the score for it, so I’m putting out an album of that, too.
The Dissolve: It’s nice to hear that Wenders took part in the project. I knew you and he had been married, but I didn’t know what your relationship was.
Blakley: Yes, we’re still in touch, and you know, I did three films with him as well. He’s such a great artist.
The Dissolve: Do you have a favorite film you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Blakley: She Came To The Valley, I think, has some wonderful things in it, and it was never seen much by anyone, I don’t think. And at the time, I don’t think I realized myself that it had such value. And Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water, with Nicholas Ray, deserves more viewers. But I guess I’d especially say Renaldo And Clara. I think that would be the one I would single out. It was poorly reviewed at the time of its release. Undeservedly so. It’s just an invaluable document of the times, and of the music and art of all the people involved.
The Dissolve: Do you still play out and perform on a relatively regular basis?
Blakley: Actually, on December 13, I’ll be at Beyond Baroque in Venice—that’s the poetry center here in L.A.—presenting a one-woman show of spoken word, song, and performance art. I do a new show or a new album every year if I can, and this year, it’ll be the album from Of One Blood, there’ll be an EP called Songs Of Love, and then the show at Beyond Baroque, I’m calling Poems And Songs Of Love. But I did a show last year at McCabe’s here [in Los Angeles] with a couple of sidemen in a two-part show featuring some new material, and then the year before, I played The Other End in New York. And I go other places if people want me. I just played Idaho, and I just played San Francisco. But I try to put together one big show of new work a year.
The Dissolve: Your discography shows a dramatic increase in output starting in 2007. Was that because it became so much easier to record at home and self-release your albums?
Blakley: Well, I think it’s partially because my daughter went away to college. [Laughs.] She turned 18 in 2006. Also, Rhino brought out a re-release of my ’70s albums, and that kind of kickstarted me. But probably the main thing was my daughter going off to college. And although I wrote in all the intervening years, I just didn’t put the work out so much. I also had a spinal-cord injury that took a little while to heal, so there were some mitigating factors. But I’ve never stopped working. I just kept it closer to the vest for a while.