As part of our International Folk Alliance Conference preview series, we're rounding up a bunch of notable acts that are coming to town and chatting about what's happening in their world. The International Folk Alliance Conference takes place from February 19-23. Details here.
For those with a taste for 1980s action films, Ronny Cox stands tall as a man in a suit, being a total dickbag - Dick Jones in Robocop
, Total Recall
's Cohaagen, and Lieutenant Bogomil in Beverly Hills Cop
and its sequel.
Yet, when you speak with Cox, you discover that he's a pretty laid-back guy who'd really rather make music than movies. It's unsurprising, given that Cox has been playing in bands since he was 15. Even his first film role, in Deliverance
, came about because he could play guitar - which he did to much acclaim, in the justifiably famous "Dueling Banjos" scene.
We spoke with Cox by phone from Detroit, where he and his band were taking a break from rehearsal, to talk about his musical career and life in film.
The Pitch: How did you get involved with the Folk Alliance International Conference?
: Well, you know, I've been a musician most of my life. I actually got my first film, Deliverance
, because I could play. I was a kid cutting records when I was in high school. I grew up in Portales, New Mexico, but Clovis, New Mexico, in the late '50s, early '60s was a hotbed of recording. I don't know if you know it, but Norman Petty Studios was there, and Buddy Holly cut "Peggy Sue" there, and the Fireballs "Sugar Shack" - all of those songs were cut there. So I was actually making records when I was in high school. Had a rock-and-roll band in those days: Ron's Rockouts.
In college, I majored in theater, but I was always playing music, and when I was struggling as an actor, I was also struggling as a folk musician. When I was in Washington, D.C., starting out my acting career, I was also playing at Cellar Door there, and Mr. Henry's there. So when they came from New York, looking for good actors, the fact that I could play helped me get my first role, in Deliverance
, which was, of course, my first film.
My second film was called Bound for Glory
- the Woodie Guthrie film. My first television show was called Apple's Way
, and I used to pick and sing a song on that every week, so in my career, everyone knew that I was this actor from New Mexico who also played music. But you know how movies are. In my career, I've had a fair amount of success playing men of authority - guys in suits and ties - and somehow, when people see me with a guitar, it kind of messes with their mind.
I noticed that, toward the end of the '80s, beginning of the '90s, your acting seems to decrease, but that's when your music kind of increased.
Exactly. I made a decision. What got me back into being a musician: I did a failed television series called Cop Rock
. I enjoyed making that show. It was a miserable failure, don't get me wrong. But I never had so much fun on a show in my life. It was one of those shows where I went to work every day, whether I was called or not. It was like watching a train wreck some days, but I realized how much I missed the music.
So I went to Nashville and managed to get a country deal, in something like '92. Now, I'm not really a country artist, so that didn't work out. So it took me another ... oh, four or five years until the mid '90s, when I found the folk-music community. I've been involved in that ever since.
I mean, I still act - I did a movie with Michael Douglas this last year - but these days ... you know, I've been lucky. I've had a great career. I'm not rich, but I've got money, and I can sort of pick and choose what I want to do, and the thing that gives me the most pleasure is playing music, and so that's what I do. I won't let any movie or television show interfere with any music gig I already have booked. If I have a gig booked, I don't care if it's the biggest movie in the world - I won't do it.
Don't get me wrong, I love acting, but I don't love it as much as the music and I kept trying to figure out why, and I now know. With acting, no matter whether it's movies, TV, plays, whatever, there is, and must always be, that imaginary fourth wall between you and the audience. With music - and especially the kind of music I do, where I tell stories and interact as much as possible with the audience - there is the possibility of a profound one-on-one sharing that takes place, and that is an opiate that I find absolutely compelling.
That's one of the reasons I like to leave the houselights on during my shows, and I like the audience to be as close to me as possible. I like my show to feel like a shared evening, like when we used to sit around our living room or in the kitchen or on the front porch - when we sat around and shared music with our family and our friends.