A few Mondays ago, Kevin Costner was in Los Angeles at the premiere of his new football film Draft Day. Four days later, he hopped on a bus. His band, Modern West, was going on tour.
Costner's not the first actor to trot out a musical project after hitting it big in Hollywood. Actors have tried their hands at pop music seemingly since time immemorial, but the true double threat is hard to pull off — Sinatra could do it, but Elvis couldn't. Indeed, the annals of actors-turned-musicians are filled with a murderers' row of laughably bad bands: Jada Pinkett Smith's woeful rap-rock band Wicked Wisdom; Jared Leto's slapdick post-grunge band 30 Seconds to Mars; Bruce Willis' embarrassing forays into white-bread blues rock. The Americana realm has seen more hits than misses, what with Steve Martin's Grammy-winning collaboration with Steep Canyon Rangers, Jeff Bridges' well-received folk discs, and Zooey Deschanel's Kewpie-doll quirky She and Him. But for every Steve Martin there's a Kevin Bacon, whose Bacon Brothers band often tops Worst Actor Bands lists, and Russell Crowe's The Ordinary Fear of God (née 30 Odd Foot of Grunts), which was once generously described as having "found neither critical nor popular success." It's music that draws oddball curiosity more than earnest enthusiasm. Which brings us to the curious case of Kevin Costner.
"I think there's still that level of curiosity," Costner acquiesces. "But the curiosity factor is there because I have genuinely not tried to publicize the band. I'm more, 'Well, let's just get out there and play.'"
In his favor, Costner is no bored millionaire dabbler, no Johnny-come-lately. Like Bridges, Costner was a budding singer-songwriter before his acting career took off. He was in a group, Roving Boy, that had a minor hit in Japan in the '80s, before films like The Untouchables and Bull Durham made him a sought-after leading man. Two of the musicians in Modern West are Costner's longtime friends and former Roving Boy buddies, guitarist John Coinman and bassist Blair Forward.
"When I met John, we were all struggling," Costner says. "That's why we hung out together, because we had nobody else to hang out with."
His interest in music took a back seat when his movie career took off, but his second wife, Christine, urged him to get back on stage in 2004. While having a Hollywood lightning rod front and center might seem like a door opener, Costner argues his celebrity has made the road tougher for Modern West.
"It's certainly put my head out there for people to cut it off and roll into the street that an entry band wouldn't get," Costner offers with a wry laugh. He sounds a little bitter, a little reserved, and maybe he is. It was a particularly disparaging line about Costner's voice in a 1988 Los Angeles Times story that scared him off singing in public. Costner wouldn't perform again for nearly 20 years.
"Those jokes, the old 'Give up your day job,' those things are very tired, man, and they don't make any sense," Costner says. "We've proved ourselves around the world. More interestingly, we've proved ourselves without having that be the goal in the first place. I had no idea we'd even make a record. Now we have four. I had no idea we'd even be paid. Now we've been paid around the world."
If Costner, some 26 years removed from that Los Angeles Times jab, seems flippant about being a celebrity in a band, Modern West's curriculum vitae certainly lends credibility. Modern West has played the Grand Ole Opry, country music's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, four times. The band's played Nashville's hallowed Ryman Auditorum — the big room at the Ryman, Costner is quick to note — twice. It's shared bills with Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Kenny Chesney.
"I know I'm dropping names right now," Coster chuckles. I do not think he's being ironic.
A quintessentially po-faced American actor — baseball, the Old West, the Hatfields and McCoys — Costner unsurprisingly makes quintessentially po-faced American Boomer rock, blue-collared, and broad-shouldered. Sure, the group debuted in 2007 with a world tour spanning cities like Istanbul and Rome, but its target audience is the attendees of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Daytona International Speedway and Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., where Modern West has more recently played. Costner's movie-star rep might talk champagne, but his country-inflected rock is strictly beer.
As such, the scenarios in Modern West's songs chart familiar territory, musically and lyrically: solitary guys pulling out of town, open highways, failure, finding the girl, losing the girl, finding the girl again. Simple, straightforward and workmanlike, most of Modern West's catalog feels like it belongs in the late '80s or early '90s, when Costner was at the peak of his acting career, alongside the heavily varnished Boomer rock of John Mellencamp and Tom Petty.
The notable exception: 2012's Famous for Killing Each Other dials down Modern West's Mellencamp fixations for spacious and sparse sepia-toned Americana built on luxurious plucked single notes and lean chord progressions. (It also features some inspired atmospheric guitar playing from Park Chisholm, one of Modern West's four guitar players, counting Costner.) The series of songs was inspired by the History Channel mini-series Hatfields and McCoys, in which Costner starred.
But Modern West isn't a vanity project. It's an earnest one, and the band's filled with some crackerjack players in Chisholm, Coinman, and a rotating cast of violinist that includes top fiddlers Bobby Yang and Roddy Chong. Modern West delivers its country-ish rock with crisp, clean lines, if not with much more distinction than a good bar band on a Thursday night, but that's more than enough to keep Modern West off of the Worst Actor Bands lists. Indeed, were Kevin Costner not, you know, a movie star, Modern West might not have toured Europe or played the Ryman, but the band offers enough familiar rewards to suggest that it could have easily carved a strong fan base as a regional touring band, especially in the South.
"I think people continue to be surprised," he adds, "and really pleasantly, having gotten more than they expected."
As for the rubberneckers who fill amphitheater seats wanting to catch a glimpse of the dude who played Crash Davis? "I don't think that will ever change," Costner shrugs. "But people think Waterworld didn't make any money, either."