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Ronee Blakley, star of Robert Altman’s Nashville

Nashville’s Barbara Jean Speaks About Her Famous Role and Current Projects

Dec 01, 2013 Web Exclusive
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The multi-talented Ronee Blakley first became involved with Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece, Nashville, as a songwriter. Shortly before filming began, she was cast as Barbara Jean, the city’s fragile queen of country. In her first film role, Blakley was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actress, and was responsible for a pair of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes.

Blakley had already established herself in the music industry, with two critically-acclaimed albums for Elektra, and would go on tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and sing on his classic “Hurricane.”

To celebrate The Criterion Collection’s release of Nashville in a new, deluxe edition, Ronee Blakley jumped on the phone with us to look back on her famous role, and to talk about her latest music, poetry, and art.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Last year you finished a feature film titled Of One Blood, which you wrote and directed. Can you tell us about it?

Ronee Blakley: It’s an ultra-low budget movie I shot with a small cast. It’s a psychological study of a young Los Angeles woman who is a poet, and lost her mother, and is reeling in the wake of that. Her mother was a radical feminist, and she is, also. She’s an activist, and is struggling with some decisions related to that.

Your daughter stars in the film. How was that experience for you, directing family?

It was terrific. She’s a wonderful actor. She’s very, very talented.

You’re not only a songwriter, but a poet. You’ll be doing a night of spoken word in Venice, California.

Yes, on December 13th. Friday the 13th! That doesn’t bode well, does it? [laughs] Don’t walk under and ladders on the way to the gig.

What are the differences, for you, between writing songs and writing poems? Is there a moment during the writing process when you decide, this piece is a song, or this piece is poetry?

Usually it’s clear, one or the other. Occasionally there can be a question. Sometimes it has to do with form, not so much content. Usually it’s quite clear, even though I write lyrics first for my songs. And I should probably say the obvious thing: for songs, usually I’m going to have a bit of a rhyme scheme, but with poetry that’s not a requirement.

Robert Altman’s Nashville, of course, was a huge breakthrough for you. You first came to the film as a songwriter. “Dues,” “Tapedeck,” “Bluebird,” “Down to the River,” and “Idaho Home” were all from your albums. How were your songs selected for the film?

I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked me that. The songs you named—I’ll tell you how that part happened. I don’t necessarily write songs for projects, I just write; I rely on inspiration. I can’t remember whether “Dues” or “Bluebird” was written first, but they were written when I lived in Hollywood. I think I had a rented piano at that time. “Dues” was about a relationship I was in which was failing. With “Bluebird,” Linda Ronstadt came and sang along with me for my first album.

Before my first album there was a movie called Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, and I provided the songs to 20th Century Fox for that movie. Judy Collins’ producer heard the songs in that movie and took me to Elektra Records, where I was signed for my first album. “Dues,” “Bluebird,” and “Down to the River” were on that record.

Richard Baskin, who was the young music director for Nashville—young at the time, of course—I met him at a party at Edward Albert’s house. Richard liked my album, so he brought my songs in, and brought me to meet Robert Altman. I guess he’d listened to the album and chose the songs he thought were the best. I also recorded in the studio and laid down a bunch of new songs. Richard Baskin selected the ones he wanted to use in the movie. I provided a couple I thought were correct, and they were used.

You just happened to be performing in Nashville when you were cast in the film.

Well, I’d been hanging out with Altman and some of the actors, and Richard Baskin in his studio, for a couple of months before, but they had not hired me in terms of paying me anything. So I had to take a job, and so I went out on tour with Hoyt Axton across the South. Hoyt was booked at the Opry in Nashville, so by the time Altman had—I don’t know, I think probably his money people—come out, that’s where they saw me. I continued on the road to Memphis with Hoyt, and then Altman called me and had me return to Nashville, and that’s when I was cast.

How much time did you have, between being cast and stepping in front of the rolling cameras?

It was short! I can’t remember exactly. Maybe a month, maybe less. I’d have to go look in my journal. [Laughs]

How did you prepare for your role in such a short amount of time?

I had already been preparing a little bit, just to be considered for the part. I practiced. I tend to approach things in a methodical way, and in this case you could say a method acting way. I tried to become her.

Actors were encouraged to write their own lines and ideas into scenes. You wrote Barbara Jean’s crushing, on-stage breakdown. It’s one of the film’s most resonant scenes. In the documentary on the new Criterion release of Nashville, you mention you wrote that scene the night before it was shot?

Yes, I think I did write it the night before. I had it in my journal, and I was in makeup, and we were going out to shoot at Opryland. I thought it would be good, and I asked for Bob [Altman] to come down, and he did. Of course, he was immensely busy. He was on a big shoot that day. Lots of people, a big location. He took the time to come down. We were standing outside the makeup room, and I read it to him. He asked, do you know it? I said yes. He said, then we’ll shoot it. And we did.

It was his idea to make pauses in my speech, and that’s what we did. He shot it, just like that.

Was there a rehearsal beforehand?

Not really! [Laughs] Not too much. The musicians had rehearsed, and we did a little bit of rehearsal, because the actors have to be marked, and it has to be decided when the actors will come on stage and to what music. That kind of thing.

For a film famous for having one the best, and largest ensemble casts, you played probably the closest thing it had to a central character. With the exception of maybe Geraldine Chaplin’s character, Barbara Jean crosses over with more characters than anyone else. Did you have a sense of camaraderie with the cast and crew?

I had a very close feeling with everyone – very close. It seemed very tight. Plus, we all gathered together every night. We were all there for ten weeks and people weren’t really allowed to leave. I know Allen Garfield left once and I think he got in a little bit of trouble for that. I think Karen Black was the only person who was allowed to fly in and fly out.

We got together each night and we watched dailies. We watched each others’ work. We seemed to bring the same amount of enthusiasm to every person’s work—it was extremely supportive. Just a wonderful, convivial vibe. Each night, we would show up, have drinks and watch dailies, and usually go out for dinner afterward. It was just wonderful, really. I felt pretty close to everyone. Even closer to the people I actually lived with. In my building were Keith [Carradine] and Tina [Raines], and Barbara Harris was downstairs. Gwen Welles was my buddy, and we rented and shared a car, and ran around in that. We lived at the Haystack Apartments. And Geraldine [Chaplin], speaking of her, she and [filmmaker] Carlos Saura lived nearby. We just had a terrific time.

While Nashville was an incredible cross-section of Hollywood talent of the era, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review did something similar for music, with so many incredibly talented musicians involved.

You’re the first person to ever mention that, and you’re so right. It was an amazing cross-section on both of those projects.

It was such an amazing lineup—Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Jack Elliot—and you were part of that. What is your fondest memory from that tour?

Aside from hanging with all those great people, many of which were my heroes, my fondest memory is singing with Bob Dylan. It was thrilling. Every night was exciting. Being on stage with him, doing duets with him—that’s never to be forgotten. I can’t say I remember every single performance individually, but taken as a whole that was very exciting. And none of us could believe it—I think we were all pinching themselves. And we were exhausted all the time! No one could catch any sleep. Getting on and off the bus to perform without really knowing where we were going because they were keeping it a secret… we would show up in a town and they would announce we were there, like the circus or something! Except the circus gets more notice than we did! And then we’d pile back onto the bus and try to get some rest. [Laughs] It was tempting to stay up all night.

You’ve been putting out music again in recent years after stepping back from working through the 1990s.

In 2006, my albums from the 1970s were re-released, and I did a couple of new albums. One called Live at the Bitter End filled with new songs, and another called River Nile, with new songs. I did spoken word albums, and I also put out the movie I’d made in 1985, I Played It for You. It was kind of an experimental music film, and it had debuted at the Venice Film Festival. I put it out as an album in 2009, and also made the movie available.

I have a new album coming out, called Songs of Love.

When did you start painting?

You know, Joni Mitchell taught me to draw in the early ‘70s. She taught me how to let your hand go with the pencil—to look at what you’re drawing, and not at the page. I’m not very good as a painter; I just do it for fun. She taught me, and I got going on water colors.

With painting, filmmaking, music, and acting—how do you decide which creative you want to work on at any given time?

You would ask that! [Laughs] That’s what I’m trying to figure out myself. I’m trying to get my album done, and I need to mix it. I want to get some writing done for my [poetry] performance on the 13th, so I can present some new work.

And yet it’s all water from the same well. You dip in there, and you have to hope it’s the thing that needs to get done is what you’re inspired to do. Because otherwise, if you’re not careful, you can get on a tangent and realize you’ve left some things hanging. It may make things take a little longer, too, because if you’re doing several things you can’t pay all the attention to the one.

Ronee Blakley’s CDs, artwork, and performance dates are available on her website, The Criterion Collection’s new edition of Nashville is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.


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