INTERVIEWS

“Crazy Heart” Author Thomas Cobb

From Tucson Metromix: May 3, 2009

Q&A: Thomas Cobb

The “Crazy Heart” author – and former Tucsonan – hits the Loft for a special May 6 screening

By Billups Allen

Special to Metromix

May 3, 2010

The saga of the country music novel “Crazy Heart” being adapted for the screen contains nearly as many pitfalls as the story itself.

The main character, known simply as Bad Blake, struggles to remain solvent during a time when his unwavering definition of country music is not as relevant. Bad Blake’s creator, author Thomas Cobb, seems to have also been country when country wasn’t cool and back again. Penned in the late 1980s, his novel “Crazy Heart” weathered 20 years of false starts before arriving triumphantly on the screen in 2009. While the country music stars on which he based the characters of his book grew older, Cobb’s classic tale of life on the road remains as relevant as when he first wrote it.

Cobb will be in Tucson for a special screening of “Crazy Heart” at The Loft on May 6. He will also be reading at Oro Valley Public Library on May 8 to promote his latest novel, “Shavetail,” the story of a young man who, in 1871, runs away from his home in Connecticut to join the army and is assigned a remote outpost in the Arizona Territory. We spoke to Cobb by phone about Bad Blake and the author’s lifelong connection to the desert around Tucson.

 

You grew up in Tucson. Do you feel the Southwest has an influence on your writing??
I really think so. My childhood was formed in the desert. We lived on the outskirts of Tucson and there weren’t a lot of houses around, so we were out there. That landscape is my landscape. When I come back I feel a connection that goes way, way back.

A detail that is more prevalent in the book than the movie is Bad Blake’s experience on stage and his psychology while performing. The book is very descriptive from the point of view of someone on stage. Are you a musician??
I think calling me a musician is an insult to musicians, but at the time I wrote “Crazy Heart” I was playing in a band in Houston, so I was thinking a lot about those things. I was thinking about technique and a musician’s life.

I worked for a little independent newspaper out of Tucson called Newsreal in the ’70s and ’80s. I was their country music editor because I was the only one who listened to country music. I used to review shows and talk to musicians and became absorbed in their world.

Bad Blake seems influenced by a subgenre of country music commonly known as outlaw music. Were the outlaw singers an influence on the character??
My first inkling of who this character is came while I was reviewing an arena show in Tucson. The late Hank Thompson was the opening act. Hank Thompson was huge in the ’50s, so I used him as kind of a physical model to base Bad Blake on. So I was thinking of that type of musician in the ’50s and ’60s being kind of left behind by the outlaws. When I was writing the book, they were the dominant force in country music. Interestingly enough, the movie had to bring that up 20 years. Bad Blake [in the film] was part of the Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] generation.

The Tommy Sweet character is equally interesting. What was the inspiration there??
The inspiration is Willie Nelson, who had been a side man and suddenly burst out in this new form of country music and become dominant and constantly traveling doing shows. I went to see a lot of Willie Nelson shows during those years. I reviewed a lot of them and they were all the same. I started to think of it as Willie out on a raid again. So that’s a little bit of Tommy Sweet, who is sort of nailing it in: a huge hero who could pack arenas. He’s not struggling hard anymore: a guy with a lot of talent.

Would you tell us a little about the process that led to your book becoming a movie??
It was a long process. The book was first optioned for a movie in 1988, right after it had come out. It was optioned by Chuck Barris of “The Gong Show,” and he paid good money for it and he got a director, Jim McBride, who had just done “The Big Easy,” and everything looked like it was a go. And then he just decided to take off on his yacht and sail around the world and dropped the project. A number of people had it over the years. Cinematographer John Daly had it as part of a three-picture deal with Orion, and then Orion went bankrupt. The actor Ronnie Cox had it for a while and ripped it off for an episode of “L.A. Law.”

So when Scott Cooper called about four years ago and said he was interested in it, I had never heard of him, and my agent had never heard of him, and she basically said “there’s nothing going on with this, let’s option it out.” I was completely shocked when Scott got it done. And I’m incredibly pleased. I owe Scott a lot.

Cobb has two novels in the works set in the Southwest and has no immediate plans to take his narratives out of the area. “Shavetail” is being released May 6. Copies of “Shavetail,” “Crazy Heart” and his short story collection “Acts of Contrition” will be available at his Tucson appearances.

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