If you dream it: Kevin Costner’s new frontier comes to Birchmere

December 1, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The summer sun sets over an Iowa cornfield. Amid so many ears of corn, a farmer’s ear catches the ghostly command of a heavenly voice, whispering a leap-of-faith calling across the wind: “If you build it, he will come.”

So begins the magical realism of “Field of Dreams” (1989), which remains as much a metaphor for Kevin Costner’s life as it is a five-hanky father-son allegory and baseball classic for the rest of us.

“I’m not any different from anybody listening,” Costner told WTOP. “We all have things churning inside us. Sometimes if you tell people what you want to do, there’s gonna be everybody around you to say, ‘Well, I don’t think you can do that.’ … The truth is, the people that love you the most are also the people that can have a tendency to hold you back. … And right now, you don’t need that. Just go do what you wanna do! And by the time people catch up to you, you’ve already done it.”

So, just like the seemingly illogical dream of building a baseball diamond out of fertile farmland, Costner is plowing the corn of his Hollywood legacy to build a music career with his country-rock group Modern West, which hits The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, next Wednesday, Aug. 24.

“All the songs that people will hear were written during the making of movies that hopefully a lot of people saw,” Costner said. “The band was formed just to play music wherever I happened to be making a movie. I didn’t have a grand plan for touring or making a record, but that evolved and it’s pretty emblematic of my career. When I do something I love, it always has a way of working out.”

Born in Lynwood, California, in 1955, Young Kevin experienced music from an early age.

“I was raised a Baptist; my grandmother was the piano player, my mom and her sister were in the choir,” Costner said. “If you’re a Baptist, you always do the manger scene every Christmas and I was a wise guy, I was a wise man. So I grew up with the music of the church; I was trained classically on the piano, and I used to write poetry. I was in musicals, so music was always a part of our life in our house.”

To this day, Costner can’t remember which gift he carried. Frankincense? Gold? Myrrh?

“My mind wandered and usually that thing on my head was too big and it fell over my eyes,” Costner joked. “I was one of the shepherds; I usually had one line in the whole thing like, “‘Hark! There it is.'”

As he entered adolescence, he began to branch out into other musical influences.

“It was in the ’60s and there was so much music coming out of the ’60s,” Costner recalled. “I remember one of the first records I bought was The Youngbloods’ [‘Get Together’], you know, ‘Smile on your brother, everybody get together, time to love one another.’ That whole vibe really started to speak to me. Music was starting to really come alive, and I remember absorbing all of it.”

Bouncing around California with his electrician father and welfare-worker mother, Costner ultimately graduated from Villa Park High School in 1973, before getting his B.A. in marketing and finance from California State University Fullerton in 1978. During his final year at college, he took an acting class and told his new bride Cindy Silva that acting was going to be the focus of his pursuits.

“The biggest important day in my life — a lot of people will think of the Oscars, they’ll think of a lot of different things — but if I think about one of the most important days of my life was when I decided what I would do, and I didn’t really care what other people thought,” he said. “That was a relief to me. I had been married a year, I was going down the road of an everyday job, and I knew that acting was in my blood. I decided, ‘This is what I’m gonna do!’ … I knew I had to be a provider and I would figure out how to do that, but I wanted everybody off my back. I was gonna do what I what I wanted to do.”

The gamble paid off big time. After a minor role in “The Big Chill” (1983) was left on the editing-room floor, Costner embarked on a highly successful film career. Few actors can claim a better run over five years than Costner from 1987-1991: Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables” (1987), Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” (1988), Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams” (1989), Lt. John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves” (1990), Jim Garrison in “JFK” (1991) and Robin Hood in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991).

Costner could excel in any genre, tackling westerns like “Wyatt Earp” (1994), post-apocalyptic adventures like “The Postman” (1997), superhero blockbusters like “Man of Steel” (2013) and iconic romantic pairings with Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard” (1992), Rene Russo in “Tin Cup” (1996), Robin Wright in “Message in a Bottle” (1999) or Jennifer Aniston in “Rumor Has It” (2005).

But despite his wide-ranging on-screen success, Costner felt the itch to move behind the camera. Just like his initial leap of faith to go into acting, it was another risk to pursue directing — this time under a much higher profile. The roll-of-the-dice culminated with a pair of Academy Awards for “Dances With Wolves” (1990), not only winning Best Picture but beating Martin Scorsese for Best Director.

“Believe me, I didn’t think I could direct,” Costner said. “I was more afraid than anybody. But I didn’t want to let fear stop me. I mean, I would be afraid if I was in Iraq or Afghanistan — that’s something to be fearful of. But the truth is, you’ve got this life and you say, ‘I think I can do this,’ and you have to try.”

Now that the dust has settled from the “Dances With Wolves” triumphs and the few “Waterworld” flops, it’s his pair of late ’80s baseball flicks that continues to spark the hottest debate among fans.

While “Bull Durham” ranks among the AFI’s Top 10 Sports Movies alongside “Rocky” (1976), “Field of Dreams” ranks among the AFI’s Top 10 Fantasies, joining classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

“‘Bull Durham’ is the better baseball movie; Crash Davis is one of the great characters anybody would ever get to play, and that movie is so iconic for so many reasons,” Costner said. “Then you take ‘Field of Dreams,’ a movie that nobody completely even understood at the time we were trying to make it, turns into our generation’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Both movies stand on the landscape of Americana. I could no more separate those movies or put one in front of the other than the Man in the Moon.”

While his first wife was there at the start of his movie career, his second wife Christine Baumgartner encouraged him to take his next leap and start a band in 2007, recalling that “Field of Dreams” convo between Ray and Annie: “I have just created something totally illogical.” “That’s what I like about it.”

“John [Coinman] and I were in a band in the ’80s called Roving Boy,” Costner said. “My movie career started to really push into high gear, and trying to raise a family and do two different things just wasn’t going to work. … Then my second wife found the music and said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t do this!’ I just had all kinds of reasons to not do it, kind of like a kid not wanting to take the trash out or mow the lawn. I just put it off. So she stayed on me for about two years and finally I said, ‘OK.'”

So he called up Coinman, who was living in Tucson, Arizona, and asked him to jam.

“It wasn’t an easy [convo] at first,” Costner said. “I tried to do the band with three other guys and it just didn’t feel right. I felt like too much pressure was gonna fall on me … But I decided to call him. I wasn’t sure since we had already tried once [with Roving Boy] and we didn’t follow through with it. We liked working together, but I wasn’t sure how he was gonna respond. He drove out immediately.”

The band cut its first album, “Untold Truths,” in 2008, reaching No. 61 on the country charts. More albums followed with “Turn it On” (2010), “From Where I Stand” (2011) and “Famous for Killing Each Other: Music From and Inspired By Hatfields & McCoys” (2012). Featuring music from Costner’s own Emmy-winning role in the History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” the album reached No. 14 on the country charts, No. 15 on the indie charts and earned an invite to the Grand Ole Opry.

“I don’t try to separate the movies from the music,” Costner said.

This symbiotic relationship drips from the lyrics. “Leland, Iowa” recalls “Field of Dreams” (“Their fathers like their fathers were raising kids and growing corn”), while “Famous For Killing Each Other” defines “Hatfields & McCoys” (“Those who now are enemies, once they used to be good friends”).

“When we go on tour, we always think like kids going on vacation, ‘We’re going to write a bunch of songs!’ We never write one,” he said. “When I go on tour, I end up writing screenplays, and when I’m on movie sets, the guys come visit and we end up writing songs. Go figure. It’s just a weird opposite.”

These “guys” are Blair Forward (bass guitar), Teddy Morgan (lead guitar), Park Chisolm (vocals, guitar), Larry Cobb (drummer) and the trio of Roddy Chong, Bobby Yang and Luke Bulla (fiddle).

“The band has always been great; I’ve gotten a little better,” Costner humbly joked. “We have a lot of firepower. We play really loud. … Just us and the audience. … The band’s really serious about the music they write, but the relationships that have formed after the last 12 years have been great.”

You can hear the camaraderie as Costner ribs his bandmates.

“Blair would go on the road 365 days a year. When he gets his little bunk, he’s so happy,” Costner said. “Larry looks like the Mr. Clean guy with that bald head. … Teddy and Park, they’re separate guys so I don’t mean to group them together, but they’re such amazing players and such great songwriters, all becoming great, important friends in my life. John Coinman, who obviously brought me back to music, I don’t even know how to make fun of a guy who opened up a whole new frontier for me.”

New frontiers: that about sums up the career of this “Dances With Wolves” risk-taker, cruising down life’s highway with “Wind In His Hair,” like the character who shouted: “Sunkmanitu Tanka Ob Waci!”

“You have one shot at this thing,” Costner said. “There’s a song called ’90 Miles an Hour’ … that talks about that idea of just doing things, and by the time people catch up with you, you’re already 90 miles down the road. That song is a metaphor for my life, and we’ll talk about it that night when we play.”

The Birchmere will also hear cuts from Modern West’s fifth album, “Where the Music Takes You.”

“Nobody will know about it because I never released it,” Costner said. “That’s just the way I do things, so I guess people that come, they can buy that record at the concert … My big hope is that people show up, and that we’re gonna play loud for them, and we’re gonna have a really good time.”

For all this, you can imagine a line of cars pouring into the parking lot of The Birchmere. They’ll come to Alexandria for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll watch the Modern West concert and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. Oh…people will come, Kevin. People will most definitely come.

December 1, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)
December 1, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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