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July 12, 2012
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Costner visits old themes with Modern West

By Chad Taylor

Kevin Costner and Modern West play the Val Air Ballroom Thursday, July 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30.

Kevin Costner is a man of many talents. Over the years, he has staked his claim as actor, director, producer (winner of two Academy Awards and six Golden Raspberries), athlete (he’s a scratch golfer and performed all his own on-camera work in “Bull Durham” and “For Love of the Game”) and businessman (Costner owns a casino in Deadwood, and oil company BP has contracted the partially-Costner-owned Ocean Therapy Solutions to assist with oil clean-up in the Gulf of Mexico). But in addition, Costner has always had a deep affinity for music. That affinity culminated in 2007 with a phone call Costner put in to musician and long-time friend John Coinman.

“John and I met in an acting class a long time ago,” said Costner in an interview from New York. “Neither of us had any money… it was in an old chemical plant, and we set up a little stage there.”

Coinman and Costner would go on to work together a number of times, including playing as a trio with Blair Forward as the band Roving Boy.

“Roving Boy didn’t last very long,” Costner admitted. “I wanted it to, but I was the one that pulled the plug on it… I thought ‘I don’t want to subject myself to this extra thing. Music or movies.’ So I concentrated on movies.”

Coinman and Costner continued to collaborate, however, including on the movie “Dances With Wolves,” where Coinman served as music supervisor. So with that ’07 phone call, Costner and Coinman — along with Forward — started putting together the roster that would become Modern West. The lineup would eventually be rounded out with guitarist/producer Teddy Morgan, drummer Larry Cobb, guitarist/backup vocalist Park Chisolm and fiddlers Roddy Chong, Bobby Yang and Luke Bulla.

The band released its first album, 2008’s “Untold Truths,” with modest success, peaking at No. 61 on the Billboard Country charts. From there, they settled into a surprisingly steady level of output, releasing an album a year, starting in 2010. Modern West’s sound is consistently reminiscent of late ’80s heartland rock (John Mellencamp is a common parallel used by critics), with a strong country underpinning.

This year’s “Famous for Killing Each Other” album features music both from and inspired by the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” starring Costner as the Hatfield patriarch.

“(Making music for the series) wasn’t a plan. I just felt like the deeper I got into that character, the more I studied, music started coming out of me. I started relating that to the band, and then the producers heard some of it.”

Costner has always had a strong connection to the American old west, and “Hatfields & McCoys”— and, by extension, “Famous for Killing Each Other” — taps into that.

“Whether we want it or not, we measure ourselves by some of our western heritage,” he said. “We wonder, in our hearts, if we’re tough enough... sometimes I find myself thinking about that. How would I have fared?”

The answer, at least where “Hatfields & McCoys” is concerned, is “quite well.” The miniseries was watched by a record 13.9 million people and was generally looked upon with a favorable eye by critics.

Whether the latest album will enjoy similar success remains to be seen. To adapt the band’s sound to fit the time period, Modern West has had to eschew the heartland rock and wade deeper into what calls “arty Americana in the style of T-Bone Burnett.” While the result may not be as inspired as the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” it’s a sound to which Costner’s surprisingly soulful voice lends itself easily. CV

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