Kevin Costner On Screenwriting and Songwriting The Music Of ‘Yellowstone’

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Ever since his directorial debut, 30 years ago, Kevin Costner has used music as vocabulary to help articulate his life onscreen — for himself, as an actor, but also for the audience and for those involved in making the film, as a director. Whether through the score of late composer John Barry, which won Dances with Wolves the 1991 Academy Award for Best Original Score, or the orchestral music he played on set for 200 extras involved in one of the Oscar-winning film’s memorable scenes, he found, from the early start of his career, music to be a second language, a valuable shorthand way to convey mood and tone. “When I can’t exactly find the words, I go, ‘Listen to this; this is what I mean,’” he tells American Songwriter, from his home in Carpentaria, California.

Listening to the 16 tracks on Tales from Yellowstone that Kevin Costner and the Modern West have created gives even the most casual of fans a good sense of what the Paramount Network series Costner stars in, and the character he has played since 2018, is about. Yellowstone, which was originally intended to be a TV movie but ended up becoming a show that’s now in its third season, sees Costner play John Dutton, the patriarch of a modern ranching family, protective of his family and the land he’s inherited.

While the songs on the album reflect the character’s mood and feelings, they also parallel some of the experiences Costner himself has had while filming the show. “It’s really a concept record,” he says. “Sometimes there are songs that aren’t really necessarily about John Dutton. I have my own muse when I’m away from home, for when I’m making a movie, and there are songs that kind of blend in and also complement what’s happening.”

Costner cites Feeling Like the Last Time as an example, a song about the last time he saw his dad, at the airport, saying goodbye after a hunting trip — and feeling it might very well be the last time. 

“I’d done that with him since I was a little boy and he told me when we say goodbye at the airport that this will be the last time. And as he was telling me that, there was some security person yelling at us to get our car off the curb, when we were trying to say goodbye to each other. I was looking at this man that had raised me, and all I could see when I looked at that security guy was the whistle in his mouth. And he was talking, but I couldn’t hear his voice. I could just see my dad. He said, ‘we’ll never do this again.’ So I just picked my eyes on him. And eventually, he had to go and I had to get on the airplane. And he was right. So I started writing about that on the plane.”

He took the idea to his band, and they exchanged thoughts about their own families and children to complete the song. The rest of the songs on Tales are created in much the same way too, as a collaboration between Costner and his band, along with other songwriters.

“I’m not as gifted as John [Coinman] and Park [Chisholm] and Teddy [Morgan]. And Blair [Forward]. What I do is, I just keep trying, when it seems to be so effortless for them. For me, I really have to dig, I have to try and most of the time everything is not making it to the top.”

Although he was playing music before he became a full-time actor, Costner admits he finds film somewhat of a more comfortable process. “Sometimes, when I go to my next movie, I think I’ve forgotten everything I know about acting,” he says. “Then you get there and you realize that you know all these things that you’ve built on — they start to come back. Music is, like, I never, we never, know.”

But with his band, which has been playing together since 2007, get it back they do. Whether it’s touring together or making new music that’s been inspired by Costner’s work as an actor. Tales was born out of a similar approach the band took to the album they created for his previous TV role, as the Emmy-winning ‘Devil’ Anse Hatfield in Hatfields & McCoys too. It’s not the official music of the series, but it enhances the viewer’s experience of it and it keeps the band together even while Costner is at his day-job.

The lead single off Tales, Won’t Stop Loving You, is about the loss of Dutton’s wife.

“It begins to sum up how he feels,” says Costner. “This man is about the land. And when you share the land with your partner, every place you ever go, you see her on it. He’s a man going forward, but you never forget that moment; it’s immovable. I didn’t have to look any further than my own life to find what was the strength of it for me.”

But the song took some work before it became the track that made it onto the album. Won’t Stop Loving You was written first as “a mainstream country radio pitch,” according to co-writer Jack Williams, who sent it to Costner, as he usually does with the material he writes. “I send everything I write to Kevin because either I just want to share it with him or there’s a project he’s doing that I hope he might consider it for. When I sent him this song, it was simply to share what I thought was an emotionally great little country song.”

Costner liked the track but asked Williams if he and the other co-writers would be willing to re-write it to fit more in with Yellowstone.

“We set up a time for Kevin to call me. I put the phone on speaker and Kevin went into the character he plays, John Dutton, and just talked to me about how he felt about losing his wife early on and raising his family. I wrote everything down he said. Then I took that conversation back to my co-writers and together we used his feelings, thoughts and words to re-write the song and thus Kevin became a writer on the song too.”

The track has resonated with fans who’ve also lost loved ones and have been sending messages of thanks to Costner and the band on the YouTube page of the music video.

Songwriting may not come as easy to Costner as screenwriting but he still has a solid sense of what he wants to say or where he’d like the song to go. On The Man I Am, he says he recorded the song a cappella.

“You won’t know it, but that was not done to a click track. I sang it two or three times and then Teddy laid music in behind it. It was just a choice I wanted to make. It’s kind of like when I asked Whitney [Houston] to do I Will Always Love You a capella in The Bodyguard. I just had a feeling about why a person would, if they’re singing about somebody they love that they don’t feel like they ever had a chance to tell it to them, sing it as bare bones as possible. To let you know, somehow, that it means more.”

Just like his love of music, Costner’s appreciation for the Western has also grown over the years. He’s working on telling more stories in this genre. “I like to look at the moments that define us as people. How hard it was to make a living out of something that wasn’t there, the displacement of the people who were there before you, and then the fight that resulted from it. It’s the fingerprints on our expansion. They’re understandable, they’re ugly, they’re heroic, they’re shameful.”

As Costner continues to tell these stories, so he’ll keep singing them too.

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