Gillian Welch and David Rawlings recently garnered a nomination for “Best Original Song” at the 2019 Academy Awards, for “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings.” The pair wrote the song for the Coen brothers’ western tour de force “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and it was originally performed therein by dueling gunslingers Tim Blake Nelson and Willie Watson. Today, Welch and Rawlings release their own version of the song on Acony Records, which they sing in their own haunting, inimitable style, invoking both the fatalism and penchant for yodeling of the classic cowboy songs. Stream and download “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” here.
Welch and Rawlings will perform “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” at the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24, 2019. Said Welch and Rawlings about their nomination: “We are eternally grateful to Ethan and Joel Coen for giving us the opportunity to write a cowboy duet between the living and the dead, and to Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson for bringing it to life.” Additionally, the pair confirm their appearance and live performance of the song on The Grand Ole Opry on February 16th. The Grand Ole Opry is the longest running radio broadcast in US history, and is taped at Nashville’s Opry House. Tickets for the February 16th performance are available here.
Welch revealed the story behind the song and working with the Academy Award winning Coen Brothers in a recent Rolling Stone interview:
“They [The Coen Brothers] gave David and I the script, and they gave us the script of maybe two other of the shorts in the collection so we could gauge the darkness [laughs]… And then there was just a really basic conversation [with Joel Coen]. He was like, “Look, there’s the singing cowboy — he’s been around for a while. Now here comes the new guy. He’s cuter, he’s faster and he sings better. He’s just better. It’s the new model. He’s coming for him.”… Joel just said, “Here’s the specifics of it. They have to be able to sing it together. They have to be able to sing it once Tim has been shot and is dead and is floating up to heaven.”
She also spoke to Variety about her and Rawlings’ process writing the song:
“It was a pretty straightforward thing: ‘Well, we need a song for when two singing cowboys gun it out, and then they have to do a duet with one of ‘em dead. You think you can do that?’ ‘Yeah, I think we can do that’”… “The more peculiar restraints you put upon a song, the more fun it is, so this was kind of a dream assignment,” Welch says. “And they didn’t tell us to do this, but if you’re writing a gunfight song between two singing cowboys, who wouldn’t love the opportunity to put some yodeling in?”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have recorded 8 studio albums and have lent their talents to countless fellow artists’ recordings. Their rich and remarkable careers span over twenty years, and they are pillars of the modern acoustic music world. Gillian Welch served as executive producer, as well as a performer, on the eight times platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, for which she was awarded the Album of the Year GRAMMY Award. She was simultaneously nominated that year for her own Time (The Revelator) which Rolling Stone called one of the best albums of the 2000s. Additionally, 2011’s The Harrow and The Harvest was nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Engineered Album GRAMMYs. In recognition of their remarkable career, Welch and Rawlings were honored with the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2015, the Berklee American Masters Award in 2016, and Welch was awarded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s prestigious Thomas Wolfe Prize in 2018, the first songwriter to ever receive the award.