Flavorwire Interview: Ronee Blakley Looks Back at Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, ‘Nashville’

Modern cinema owes a major debt to Robert Altman, whose style and sensibilities are replicated over and over again in contemporary films. His major contribution is the ensemble film, particularly his 1976 masterpiece, Nashville. Following a collection of assorted characters in the country music capitol, Nashville is about a country seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and its cast, featuring standout performances from Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, and Keith Carradine, delivers moments of both dramatic and comedic brilliance. For my money, however, I’ve always been taken with Ronee Blakley, who plays country star Barbara Jean, and who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.

In addition to acting in the film, Blakley, already an established recording artist, contributed seven songs to it. And it’s her performance as the tender and fragile Barbara Jean that offers pathos in light of the film’s biting satirical commentary. Today, Nashville sees a reissue in a deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD edition from Criterion Collection, allowing me the chance to talk to Blakley about her role in the movie and its soundtrack, crafting the character of Barbara Jean, and the film’s enduring legacy.

Flavorwire: I’m really thrilled to talk to you because not only is Nashville one of my favorite, favorite movies, but I’m also a fan of your music. I was listening to it all day today.

Ronee Blakley: Aw, thank you.

So, I’m really excited to get to talk to you.

Oh, that is so nice of you. Well, good, I just watched the documentary over the weekend and it seemed to me like they ignored the fact that I contributed six songs to the movie. Did you notice that?

Yeah, I did notice that! They didn’t really talk much about the composition of songs so much, which I think plays such a major role in the film.

I was surprised because it seemed like for the making of Nashville they were going to try to explain how it was done and who did what and everything and then they left that all out. I thought it was odd.

I watched the documentary today, and you say that you got involved because you knew [soundtrack producer] Richard Baskin and he was involved in the film.

I had met him with a boyfriend of mine at the time, and Richard turned out to be a fan of my first album, which was on Elektra Records, and he had me come in and meet Altman as a composer, a few months before we actually did the movie.

So you weren’t brought in as an actor for the film originally?

No, I was originally a writer, a composer.

Did you have acting experience before?

Well, I had acted all through school days, including high school, junior high school and college. And I had done summer stock and was a member of Equity, but then I kind of gave up acting to write and do music. And then I got pulled back in. I composed the soundtrack for a 20th Century Fox film called Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, and I was onstage at Carnegie Hall with electronic Moog synthesizers. I was into electronic music, and I was a producer of soundtracks and I had my album I had done. You know, I had been mentioned in The New York Times and I had done Carnegie Hall, and so in a way I was the music professional on the set. Richard Baskin hadn’t done an album and had never produced a soundtrack. But I had, so I provided quite a few songs, and that’s how I was brought in. Susan Anspach was brought in to play Barbara Jean.

Did you have a formal audition?

No, they just decided they wanted me to do it.

Your self-titled album is kind a folk-country album. Did you have that kind of Nashville country music background or were you more of a New York-based musician at that point?

Well, I’m from the Northwest, and I went to Julliard. I was a music major at Stanford. I was classically educated and I did Broadway musicals all throughout school and I had a girl’s quartet in high school where we sang Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Kingston Trio and I played the baritone ukulele. And then I came out to California in 1969, when I came back to California, I sailed through the Panama Canal with David Crosby on his boat, and Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell. Then I went to join a rock band called California. We recorded the title song for a movie called April Fools. So I did that, then I got this job to the music for Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, and I had my own building next to Frank Sinatra’s, a little office on the 20th Century Fox lot. And then, from there, I got a record deal at Elektra and in fact, a couple of the songs from Welcome Home, Soldier Boys went onto the Elektra album and into Nashville.

You wrote “Dues” for that previous film, correct?

I don’t write for specific things. I’m a writer and I just write.

Altman liked to have his actors improvise a lot and bring their own stories to their characters. In terms of the Barbara Jean character, how much of that did you really craft yourself with Robert Altman? And how much of that was on the page already?

Well, [I did] most of it myself. She only had one scene, one speaking scene, in the script that I got. That was the hospital scene. In the script there was a scene where Barbara Jean arrives at the airport. So that scene was there, but then she didn’t say anything. And then there was the scene where she went to the Opry and fainted but didn’t do anything. So these little scenes existed but there was nothing in them.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm8PwXOHNPs]

Was it Robert Altman who encouraged you to play around with the role, or was it more your idea to flesh out the character?

You know, he would welcome ideas. If you did something and he liked it, that was great. I only did one scene that wasn’t included in the movie. It was included in the television version, but nobody knows where that is anymore. And then when I lay in the hospital bed and talked about a dream I had of a little daughter and all this kind of stuff. I thought it worked well but it wasn’t used. But everything else I did was used.

I’m also a huge fan of Coal Miner’s Daughter — when I watched Nashville for the first time I had already seen it — and I saw a lot of similarities between Loretta Lynn’s story and the Barbara Jean character. So I was interested to hear you talk in the documentary about how, when you were researching for the role in Nashville, you got to go meet Loretta Lynn and her husband.

I got to meet Loretta Lynn and I got to meet Dolly Parton.

Were those two the real-life bases for Barbara Jean’s character?

No, she was originally written to be based on, I believe, Lynn Anderson. Lynn Anderson was a blonde and Susan Anspach was supposed to play her. She’s a beautiful vanilla blonde. She was in Five Easy Pieces, a great actress. If Susan Anspach had done it, you would think it was about Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, or Lynn Anderson. ‘Cause all those girls went to the hospital.

Your character didn’t interact with as many of the other actors as most of the other characters, did but did you have a lot of interaction among the actors off set?

Yes, we hung out a lot together.

You said recently that you remained friends with Gwen Welles and Karen Black.

Gwen and I shared a car. We rented a Ford together and we had a very good time together. I just adored her. Karen I didn’t really know until afterward. I got to know her and became better and better friends with her over the years. I sang at her grave site recently. I sang “In the Garden,” a song that’s in the movie.

How long were you in Nashville during the filming?

About ten weeks. I arrived early and helped Altman; I took him to see Ry Cooder, and I asked him to be in the movie, but he said no. And then I took him to Vassar Clements, and Vassar said “yes.”

The Nashville community was somewhat involved in the filming in a way, and I know that the response to the film was not very positive there. Did you experience any reactions from that scene after the movie came out?

Well, I was there for the premiere, and I sat beside Minnie Pearl and I got the impression that she wasn’t that thrilled with it, and then the reviews in the papers was not good.

It’s such a satirical, funny film that it seems to poke fun at the world of Nashville, but you said in the documentary that you really don’t see it that way. You see it as more of an homage to the country music scene.

Yes, I can see why people see the ironic or the edge. But every individual personality has that, too. Nobody’s all good or all bad. Life is like that. And these iconic figures might have some characteristics that can be broadly stroked or finely stroked. What I find is that the Nashville community of today has a love for the movie.

When you recorded your album, did you see yourself in a particular way or have a label that was put on you by people in the industry? Were you a country singer or were you a folk singer?

People are always trying to put labels on me. I was a Los Angeles person, and I was a writer. It was unusual for [a singer] to be a writer back then. Joni Mitchell wrote but she was an LA singer/songwriter; I was, too. I had never been to Nashville. I was not at all a country musician. I had some country roots, of course, but… they were cowboy roots, they were pioneer roots, Northwestern.

Do you feel like Barbara Jean and Nashville are what most people associate most definitively with you and your career?

By all means. Yes, it was a definitive moment because it thrust me into the international spotlight for a moment, and it was just a remarkable experience. Oddly enough, people your age, guess what they remember me for?

I know exactly: whenever I was asking friends they were just like, “Can you ask her about Nightmare on Elm Street?”

Which is also a classic film, by the way! But as far as me showing what I can do as an artist and a project that used my abilities to the fullest, Nashville probably did that. I was allowed to write, I was allowed to sing, I was allowed to act. Nothing was forbidden. Every input was welcomed, and that just doesn’t happen very often. And that cast! That magnificent cast of actors and just glorious work that they all did — so many of them. They were so fantastic, and it’s just heartbreaking to think that many aren’t around anymore. Many of them are gone, and that is just so hard to take. Life is bittersweet in that way. In some ways, cinema provides that for us: a type of immortality. Even though they’re gone, they will live on.