The Deliverance of Ronny Cox
By Terry Roland
If you spend even a few minutes talking with actor and singer-songwriter, Ronny Cox, you may see a subtle but distinct light shine from his eyes. If you spend a little more time listening to his new album, Ronny, Rad & Karen, or going to one of his shows, you may experience that same light as warmth. It comes from a life well lived in pursuit of songs and stories while keeping his own fires burning close to home. You may even recognize him. He’s one of those character actors who often remain nameless but familiar to the general public. His debut role in the 40 year-old classic movie, Deliverance, which also starred Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty, was distinguished by his friendly guitar-picking character, Drew Ballinger, who was the moral center point for the dilemma the characters face in the story. His scene with the backwoods banjo-playing boy performing Dueling Banjos became one of the few cinematic portrayals of authentic bluegrass music in film history. The song is one of the only bluegrass records in history to land the #2 position on Billboard’s Top 100 charts. This scene is the one bright moment in an otherwise dark film.
Ronny Cox’s new book, Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew, is an engaging read full of revealing behind-the-scene stories about the trials and joys of creating a great American classic film from a young actor’s perspective seasoned with the vantage point of wisdom and time.
In the interview that follows, Ronny makes it clear, while he loves acting, his priorities have always been his family, including his wife Mary, the love of his life, who passed away five years ago, and his music. When he’s not acting, he is on the road with the constant schedule of show dates around the country.
In a concert setting he brings his audience closer to something real that can only come through the in-person experience of story and song. There is nothing maudlin or sentimental here. It’s through simple stories, many based on his own personal experience, that he has crafted his music and an easy, relaxed but energizing, often inspiring show. Some of his songs are humorous like the one about his New Mexico hometown, Portales. Some are profound like the song of Navaho mysticism, Always in the Wind. Some of his songs are intimate and near his heart, like his touching goodbye to Mary after she died, Against the Wishes of My Heart. All of them are close to that fire, the bright light you can see in his eyes and the warmth you can hear in his voice, the voice of a true folksinger.
TR: I’ve been enjoying the new book.
RC: Yeah, Barbara Bowers, my editor, and I went back on forth on whether we should clean it up. I really wanted it to be a storyteller book. I wanted it to have that feel to it. Not too polished.
TR: Like folk music.
RC: (Laughs) YES!
TR: When people talk about Deliverance today, they remember the Dueling Banjos scene. Did you do your own playing?
RC: No, I didn’t. John Boorman wanted me to and I think I could have. Not that I’m that good. I mean, I’m not in the same league as Steve Mandell who actually played it. Boorman wanted me to record it, but it was my first film, my first time in front of the camera. I would’ve had to miss a day of filming for rehearsal. So instead, I just matched what was played and it worked.
TR: Back then there wasn’t much visibility for bluegrass music. It was kind of a public revelation of this kind of music when the song hit it so big in 1972.
RC: It’s one of three films that helped to popularize bluegrass music. The first being Bonnie and Clyde, then Deliverance and, of course, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.
TR: Can you describe your overall impression of working on Deliverance?
RC: It was magic for me. It was my first time in front of the camera, my first time in a movie. Not only doing just a part in a movie, but a starring role in it! It was shot in sequence and we did all of our own stunt work. The stories from those days are just as fresh today as they were back then. Looking back on it 40 years later, it changed my life. There were so many film roles and projects I never would have been a part of if it weren’t for that film.
TR: What is the most important story of your life?
RC: Well, most important to me is Mary. It’s one of the blessings of my life that I married her. The movie business is famous for being hard on marriages. It becomes your whole life. Everything is wrapped up in it. An actor can get caught up in the romance and the celebrity of it all.
TR: Your story with Mary is quite moving and unusual for a successful actor.
RC: At the beginning I made the decision that acting was not going to be my life. It would be my job and career. I really love acting. But, my life would never be the movies. I decided my life would be Mary and the boys. I really admire intelligence and Mary was the most intelligent person I’ve ever known. It was just a pleasure to have her to come home to and to talk with every day.
RC: You know, as much as I love acting, I don’t love it as much as I love music. I’d ask myself, what’s the difference between acting and my music? Here it is: During my shows there’s a profound sense of one-on-one sharing. With acting you cover yourself with the role, the stage, the camera. There’s always some kind of barrier. You just don’t have the same ability to share with others. Music cuts through to the heart on so many levels.
TR: I think your closest kin is Guy Clark. Like Guy, your songs come from something personal and real and grow into stories.
RC: I love Guy. There are two schools of thought in folk music. The first says, ‘just sing the songs and shut up. Let the music speak for itself.’ That’s valid, but it doesn’t work for me. I love the idea of some disembodied experience on the left that then comes up from the right and turns into a song. I like to tell the story of the song during my shows. I like to set up a story and then the pay-off is in the song.
TR: I noticed you did that at the Coffee Gallery show with the song about your hometown (Portales). Do all of your stories come out of real life experience?
RC: No. Not strictly. Sometimes I’ll make one up. Like the Quintanaroo wasn’t true. It didn’t actually happen that way. I crafted the story. TR: So, did you actually play poker with John Huston the way you wrote in The Night John Huston Died?
RC: I did indeed. That’s true! There’s a quote by Picasso. “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes you realize the truth.” That changed everything when I heard that. It was an epiphany. It gave me permission to make things up. I ran into a young woman who found out some of my stories were made up so she came to me and said, “How could you do that?” My answer is, I can get at a much larger truth this way.
TR: So, you begin from the personal then move to the universal.
RC: That brings up a point about my whole philosophy of art. I love the particular as opposed to the universal. However, if I choose to tell the particular story, the listener may get to the universal this way. If you go for the universal first, the particular and personal gets lost. I love to tell the particular through stories and songs and let the universal just happen.
TR: The other big movie that came early in your career was Bound for Glory about Woody Guthrie.
RC: It was directed by Hal Ashby. He was my favorite director. I remember when I got the call I was supposed to go meet with him for 15 minutes about the film and we ended up talking for over two hours. He made so many great films during the 70s and 80s like Coming Home, Being There, Harold and Maude. He was one of the only directors to have a film nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Screenplay, not to be even nominated for Best Director.
TR: That was Coming Home?
RC: Yes. He won an Oscar as Best Editor for In The Heat of the Night. But, Bound for Glory was a great movie. I love that one. We also had Haskell Wexler who won the Academy Award for cinematography on it. It was the first use of the Steadicam.
TR: Do you have any thoughts on Woody Guthrie since this is his centennial year?
RC: I’ll be playing at the festival in Okemah this summer. Woody Guthrie’s music? These were just the songs I grew up with even before I knew that they were written by him. For me, when I was a kid, it was just folk music. They were just the songs of the people I knew around me.
TR: When Woody became more of a persona to you, what was most significant about him?
RC: Since I’m hot-wired to be a left-wing radical, it always seemed to me that Woody was just writing the truth. I never saw anything he wrote as incendiary. I didn’t think about the politics of what he wrote. It just seemed like natural truth to me. Like he was saying, “Open your eyes! Here it is!”
TR: That reminds me of his famous quote about This Land is Your Land. “You can only write what you see.”
RC: The other Woody quote I like a lot is “Only play the notes you know!”
TR: It seems you had a close friendship with Mickey Newbury.
RC: Mickey was a big influence on me. He was probably a bigger influence than Woody. He is THE great Texas songwriter. Nothing against Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt. If you look at his melodies and his lyrics, he was so good. He was kind of prickly and burned every bridge he ever crossed. He’d call me once or twice a week and we’d talk for hours, then he’d play new songs for me over the phone. He was really a difficult man. You know, he did his recordings with strings and wall-to-wall reverb. But, look at his songs like San Francisco Mabel Joy and Cortelia Clark. I did an album of his songs as a tribute (How I Love Them Old Songs). I can play a two hour show of nothing but Mickey’s songs: You Always Have the Blues, Lead On, Apples Dipped in Candy. He was the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Country Music Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and then to be barred. He shot off a gun inside and was banned from his own induction.
TR: Most people don’t know that he’s the one who arranged the American Trilogy that Elvis made so famous.
RC: Do you know when he did it? It was during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. So many people were saying the anthem, Dixie, was a song that represented the bigotry of the South. People were saying no one could ever sing Dixie again. Mickey, being the iconoclast that he was, said, “I’ll show you how you can do it!” That’s how it was born.
TR: He was the songwriter’s songwriter.
RC: It wasn’t only Elvis. Willie Nelson’s first number one hit was Sweet Memories, Kenny Rogers’ did I Just Dropped In, and so many others. My best friend, Jack Williams, played guitar for him during his last years.
TR: Well, thank you for your time, Ronny. I look forward to seeing another show in the near future.
RC: Thank you, Terry.
Ronny Cox’s book, Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew is available through Amazon.com. His new album, Ronny Cox-Ronny, Rad & Karen, will be released soon. For more information go to his website. This article originally appeared in FolkWorks.