As Tom Waits dons a cow­boy hat once more in The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs, MARTIN HALL se­lects five other singers who have made their mark in Westerns

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As well as be­ing one of Amer­ica’s great­est song­writ­ers of the past 30 years, Tom Waits, it must be said, was made to be on screen – and I can’t es­cape the thought that he was born to be in the West­ern. He has had a fan­tas­tic film ca­reer and has even starred in the quin­tes­sen­tial (if not so great in my opin­ion) mod­ern West­ern Cold Feet (1989). Now, he plays a gold prospec­tor in the Coen broth­ers pro­duc­tion The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs. The film is split up into six sep­a­rate, but in­ter­linked sto­ries, be­gin­ning with the epony­mous tale of Scruggs, a Roy Rogers-style singing cow­boy who, un­der a harm­less ex­te­rior, is a sav­age killer. Waits stars in a seg­ment called All Gold Canyon as a lone gold miner. The film was first shown at the 2018 Venice Film Fes­ti­val, where it won an award for Best Screen­play, and it is set to air on Net­flix on No­vem­ber 18.

Why is it that mu­si­cians and Westerns seem so in­deli­bly as­so­ci­ated? It all starts with the ar­che­typal singing cow­boy, made fa­mous by the likes of Rogers and his fel­low singing cow­boy Gene Autry in the 1930s. Since then, many mu­si­cians have found them­selves at­tracted to the genre.

Mean­while the Coen broth­ers are well­known for us­ing mu­sic in their movies: from O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) – which show­cased the blue­grass of the de­pres­sion-era West – to In­side Llewyn Davis (2013) – which high­lighted the 1960s folk scene – and even The Big Le­bowski (1998) – where the sound­track helps form part of the film’s nar­ra­tive. The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs looks to con­tinue the Coens’ em­brace of this mu­si­cal legacy.

So here are my five picks for ac­tor­mu­si­cians you should check out to warm you up for the Coens’ forth­com­ing re­lease.


One of the most pro­lific record­ing artists to ap­pear in a ten-gal­lon hat is singer song­writer Kris Kristof­fer­son, best known among main­stream movie­go­ers as the co-star – with Bar­bra Streisand – of A Star is Born (1976). Early on in his song­writ­ing ca­reer, Kristof­fer­son es­tab­lished his coun­try pedi­gree with songs such as Me and Bobby Mcgee and Help Me Make It Through the Night.

When it comes to Westerns his cred­its in­clude Pat Gar­rett and Billy the Kid (1973) (about which more later), Bring me the Head of Al­fredo Gar­cia (1974) and Heaven’s Gate 1980). The less said about the lat­ter, the bet­ter, ex­cept that it’s gen­er­ally thought to have ended Michael Cimino’s di­rec­to­rial ca­reer and it didn’t do Kristof­fer­son much good as an ac­tor ei­ther, although the film is grad­u­ally be­ing reap­praised as a mis­un­der­stood mas­ter­piece.


When Daryl Han­nah came to cast her di­rec­to­rial de­but, Para­dox (2018) she didn’t have to look too far for some­one to fill the role of ‘Man in the Black Hat’ – her part­ner Neil Young. Young feels like a per­fect pick in that not only does he look as if he sleeps in his cow­boy hat, he’s also got a pretty im­pec­ca­ble coun­try pedi­gree, de­spite be­ing Cana­dian by birth.

Wil­lie Nel­son, one of the all-time greats of coun­try mu­sic, also makes an ap­pear­ance. Worth a look for ei­ther of these two in my opin­ion (less so for the plot, sadly).


In both his mu­sic and his movies, David Bowie was a shapeshifter, ex­per­i­ment­ing be­tween gen­res. Best known on­screen for his starring roles as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and a goblin king in Labyrinth (1986), his role as a gun­slinger is less well known but no less worth a view for all that.

It was prob­a­bly the prospect of work­ing with com­poser En­nio Mor­ri­cone that tempted Bowie to into a role along­side Har­vey Kei­tel in Gio­vanni Veronesi’s 1998 Ital­ian film, Il Mio West (Gun­slinger’s Re­venge). Kei­tel’s re­tired gun­slinger re­turns home to his son’s farm, only to be fol­lowed by his long­time neme­sis Jack – Bowie – who in­sists on a fight to the death and kid­naps Kei­tel’s son as mo­ti­va­tion. This is a lit­tle­seen West­ern in which Bowie’s mur­der­ous char­ac­ter per­forms a macabre Glory! Glory! Hal­lelu­jah! that is so out­side of what we have come to ex­pect from The Thin White Duke that it must be seen to be be­lieved.


The Man in Black, with his south­ern Arkansas drawl and his cat­a­logue of coun­try songs such as The Great­est Cow­boy of Them All and The Last Cow­boy Song, was prac­ti­cally made for the West­ern.

Cash starred in a good many tele­vi­sion roles for Westerns but A Gun­fight (1971), for which Cash com­posed and per­formed the ti­tle theme, is an un­sung and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated gem of a film which has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the first West­ern fi­nanced by Amer­i­can In­di­ans, in this case the Ji­car­illa Apache Tribe. The film re­ceived mixed re­views, some greet­ing it as a good old-fash­ioned West­ern, oth­ers as a flac­cid flick that doesn’t make the most of the Cash songs in the sound­track.


Bob Dy­lan has spent a fair few hours on film, mostly play­ing him­self. But when you read the name Sam Peck­in­pah you know you are get­ting a proper West­ern. Like Heaven’s Gate, Pat Gar­rett and Billy the Kid was plagued with prob­lems – and Dy­lan has been more feted for his bril­liant sound­track al­bum of the same ti­tle than for his act­ing (co-star Kristof­fer­son’s per­for­mance as The Kid was gen­er­ally bet­ter re­ceived). Watch the movie if you fancy it, but do your­self a favour and get to know the al­bum which fea­tures the clas­sic Knock­ing on Heaven’s Door.

So Waits is join­ing a pretty star-stud­ded ar­ray of mu­si­cians who have donned cow­boy hats and boots – and whether they are wield­ing six-shoot­ers or gui­tars, there seems to be some­thing about the West­ern that has drawn in some of mu­sic’s big­gest names. The likes of Elvis Pres­ley and Wil­lie Nel­son de­serve hon­ourable men­tions, but we all have our favourites, and these are mine.

Pho­tos: Getty Im­ages

SINGING COW­BOYS: Above, Neil Young in Para­dox (2018). Be­low, from left, Kris Kristof­fer­son in Pat Gar­rett and Billy the Kid, 1973; David Bowie in Il Mio West, 1998; Bob Dy­lan in Pat Gar­rett and Billy the Kid; Johnny Cash in A Gun­fight, 1971; Tom Waits in The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs, 2018

Martin Hall is a se­nior lec­turer at York St John Uni­ver­sity; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at the­con­ver­sa­tion. com

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