Bundled up against freezing winter weather, 400 people pack into Jim Ambroson’s barn in Leland, Iowa (pop. 258), for a surprise appearance by a big movie star.
But when Kevin Costner takes the small makeshift stage, he’s not there as an actor. Instead, he’s the lead singer of his band, Modern West, making an unscheduled stop on their tour.
“Here we go, your song,” Costner says, strumming the first few notes of “Leland Iowa,” a song written about the tiny town by bandmate John Coinman and featured on the group’s CD Untold Truths.
“We just couldn’t believe he would stop here,” says Ambroson’s wife, Melanie. “We printed the words to the song because some of the people hadn’t heard it yet, and everyone sang along. The townspeople are still talking about it.”
Moments like these are the reason Costner, 55, started Modern West. Although the Academy Award-winning actor has tapped the emotions of moviegoers for almost 30 years with blockbuster films including Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves, he says music allows him to more personally interact with people.
‘Not a fluke’
Costner, who played more than 25 years ago in another band with Coinman, says it was with encouragement from his wife, Christine Baumgartner, 33, that he considered getting another musical group together.
“It was her realizing that when I find myself at a golf tournament or some other place, I’m usually reduced to a handshake and autograph,” Costner says. “She says, ‘I see how happy you are when you’re playing [music], and that’s how I know you. When you’re on stage, you can be with people and still have fun.”
Costner started picking up a guitar wherever he found himself with a few idle moments, sometimes in between breaks on movie sets. He recruited his longtime friend Coinman to help shape what is now Modern West. They both wanted friend and former band member Blair Forward to join them, and Coinman went on to recruit Park Chisholm, Larry Cobb and Teddy Morgan, all experienced musicians.
Costner says he’s somewhat “shy” about having his name as part of the band’s name because they are truly a collaborative group, writing and performing all original songs.
“Even though it says ‘Kevin Costner,’ we’re a band,” he says. “These aren’t session players that follow people around. These are people that are at my house and around my kids that call each other in the middle of the night to say ‘We have a new line.’”
Fans caught a glimpse of Modern West in a party scene in the 2008 movie Swing Vote, and Costner realizes that many people attending one of the band’s live shows for the first time come because of his movie-star status.
During a concert at Dallas’ Granada Theater, the simple gesture of rolling up his shirtsleeves elicits screams from women close to the stage.
“I’m in love!” gushes Connie Allen, 37, of Azle, Texas. “I was in love with him 20 years ago. I’ve been in love with him since Field of Dreams.”
Joe Powell of nearby Denton, Texas, says he and his wife, Angie, had heard only one Modern West song, “Backyard,” before seeing Costner’s show at the Granada.
“He’s a lot more of a musician than I thought,” Powell says. “He’s really into it, and you can tell he has a lot of feeling for his music. He’s real sincere. It’s not a fluke.”
Although Costner is obviously best known as an actor, producer and director, music has played a pivotal role in his life since childhood.
“My grandma played the piano in church, and my mom’s sister was in the choir and sang so beautifully,” says Costner, who also performed in church musicals as a young boy and “was a wise man every year” in Christmas pageants in his hometown of Lynwood, Calif. He took classical piano lessons when he was about 12, but hated it.
“I was never going to be a concert pianist,” he says. “Nobody ever turned me on to Jerry Lee Lewis. So eventually that metronome felt like it must in prison, like the ticking of time.”
College at California State University was a time of self-discovery as he became interested in acting. He joined a theatrical group, where he met Coinman. The two young men quickly realized they also shared an affinity for music, striking up a friendship and eventually a rock band, Roving Boy.
By 1991, when Roving Boy’s album The Simple Truth produced a modest hit single in Japan, Costner’s movie-star status was well established with Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves, for which he won Academy Awards for director and picture.
Finding it impossible to balance a musical sideline with their lead singer’s skyrocketing movie career, the band dissolved. But Coinman and Forward, another Roving Boy alum, continued to play with Costner occasionally, visiting him on movie shoots and even working on the soundtracks for some of his films.
During a visit to Dyersville, Iowa, when Costner was filming Field of Dreams, Coinman wrote the song “Leland Iowa,” about the neighboring town where his wife’s family lived.
Trusting his instincts
Costner relates easily to people. Although he was born in California, his family’s heritage is in the Oklahoma panhandle, and his heartland roots resurface in songs that tell stories about small towns and evoke feelings to which many listeners can relate.
A second album, Turn It On, released on an independent label, is now available online, and Costner is thinking about doing a series of historical songs about pivotal moments in American history, like the Civil War, settlement of the West, or the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The band wrapped up its initial 10-city tour just days before the February 2009 birth of Costner and Baumgartner’s newest son, Hayes, who joined big brother Cayden, 3, and Costner’s other children from his previous marriage, Liam, Joe, Lily, and Annie, who range in age from 14 to 26.
As Modern West continues to make concert appearances in the United States and internationally, Costner has rediscovered how difficult it is to balance movies and music.
“I have to walk between the raindrops of my movie career,” he says. “It’s an economic difference in my friends’ lives if we do Modern West shows. On the other hand, I’ve got to also handle the career that’s in place.
“I’m going to have to take more control of my movie career. I need to direct more, and I’ll make some more cowboy movies.”
Whether making music or movies, Costner’s philosophy is the same: He doesn’t try to anticipate what an audience will like, but instead trusts his instincts and pursues what is meaningful to him, knowing that it will, in turn, connect with someone else.
“It’s hard to do what we do, which is play an hour and a half of music that no one has ever really heard, and hold an audience. But we’ve been able to do that,” he says. “We turn it into our own personal party with everyone.”