Banjo in a movie soundtrack… again?

This post is a contribution from Ned Luberecki, banjo player with Chris Jones and The Night Drivers, and instructor at the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase in Nashville, TN.

Here’s the story of how I got to play banjo on a movie soundtrack. The movie is called Chrystal, and stars Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount. It is now available on DVD at most video rental stores.

A few years ago, when I was still living in northwest Arkansas, a friend at a local music store handed me a fax they received from a movie production company, looking for area musicians for extras. The fax said that the film would feature “traditional” music and that they needed banjo and fiddle players for the audition. I called the number and was told what day and time to show up for the casting call. That same day, I got a call from a recording studio in Springfield, MO hiring me for a session on the same day as the casting call. (You gotta take the paying gig, right?) Turns out, it was for the soundtrack of the same movie!

The movie was filmed in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas and a sub-plot of the story involves an out-of-towner researching traditional music of the area” that”s where the banjo comes in. (Warning: This film contains nudity, drug content and violence, and is rated “R”.)

In the studio, I met the engineer and the other musicians, then Ray McKinnon (writer, producer and director of the film), Lisa Blount (the female lead in the film, who was there to sing her parts for the soundtrack) and Don Fleming (music supervisor). No, Billy Bob Thornton was not there, but and old friend, Dave Wilson (a former band mate from the group Radio Flyer) was there to play fiddle and mandolin.

We started by playing some of the background music for a couple of the scenes. One was a fight scene between Billy Bob Thornton”s character “Joe” and his antagonist in the film “Snake” (played by Ray McKinnon). The scenes had not been filmed yet so all we had to go by were descriptions of the action from by Ray McKinnon. I was really impressed by how well he could describe (in great detail) what would be happening, and how the music should sound. Years later (now that I”ve finally seen the film) it’s almost as if I had seen it before!

The music for the fight scene was “inspired” by a recording by Roscoe Holcomb of Sugar Babe. The recording that we listened to was what the old timers call a “crooked” tune, in that it had lots of extra beats and odd measures. We were told to try to approximate the tune, but make it our own. It started with a few minutes of solo banjo, and then joined by fiddle and finally the whole band. The scene was to start off as a shoving match with the banjo playing solo, then as the fight progressed, the tempo and intensity of the music would build.

Next we recorded music for the porch scenes. These scenes featured a group of pickers on the porch, just pickin. Harry Dean Stanton (“Pa Da” in the movie) was playing guitar and singing in the scene (although he was not included in the same recording session). Lisa Blount, who plays the title character “Chrystal” (Billy Bob Thornton”s wife in the film), sang Rocking Chair which was recorded live (in one take as I recall) in our session.

After the session was over, I asked Ray McKinnon if there was a chance that I might still be included as an extra in the film. He thought that was a good idea and told all of the musicians to call his casting director and set it up. I called and was told that he was planning on using the session players in the porch scenes, and that he would call me back to let me know when they would shoot that scene. (I never heard from him again). I only mention that because, now that I’ve seen the film, Dave Wilson (my fiddle playing friend) was included the scene” Seems like I owe him a phone call” Hmmmm”

The movie was not released until a few years later, and as an independent film (no major distribution company) in limited areas. I read a few reviews on-line about it (it did get good reviews, especially for the soundtrack!) but I was never able to find the movie playing in a theater near me. I actually didn’t know the film was available on DVD until about two weeks ago! I was in a recording session here in Nashville and between takes I was noodling with something on the banjo when the engineer said, “Hey… that sounds like it ought to be on a Billy Bob Thornton movie soundtrack!” I told him that I had actually played on a movie soundtrack featuring Billy Bob Thornton and he said, “It wasn”t Chrystal, was it? I just watched that movie last night.”

I went out and rented it the next day.

Now that I”ve added movie soundtracks to my resume, I’ll be sending demo CDs to all the major motion picture studios. Mr. Spielberg, are you reading this blog? Does anyone have George Lucas’ email address?