There can be a hundred people in a room, and 99 of them are going to tell you that, if they had a vote, it would go to “Shallow” for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards. Odds are that at least a few of these people are Ringer staff writers. Type in “shallow” as a search term on this website and you get “The Songs From A Star Is Born, Ranked” (in which it somehow finished second on a soundtrack designed to showcase it); “The Best Songs in the (Fictional) Universe, Ranked” (ditto, albeit against a much tougher field); and “The Nonwords in Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s ‘Shallow,’ Ranked,” which adjudged Gaga-as-Ally’s throaty vocalization on the run-up to the chorus as “instantly iconic, unavoidable, wont to worm its way into your brain and besiege every thought.”
Certainly, “Shallow” was smartly performed by Gaga and the former DJ Ski Mask to reflect and refract the various subtexts of a movie that worships the concept of pop authorship. As has already been expounded upon many times, what girds the irresistible, time-tested narrative of A Star Is Born 4.0 is the idea that Jackson and Ally are bound together by a respect for the process of songwriting, represented on screen via montages of scribbling lyrics on lined paper. This imagery is a standard of the musical-drama genre from 8 Mile to Once; I haven’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody yet, but I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t a scene in which the camera zooms in on a notebook page that’s blank except for a single line: “We will … we will ...?”
In short: The reason we know that Ally isn’t shallow, and thus is a star worthy of being born, is because she can craft a song with depth. One that isn’t afraid of asking the big questions, of her emotionally bruised lover and mentor but also of American society in general, i.e. “Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?” All kidding aside, the juxtaposition in “Shallow” of diving headfirst into a love affair with the leap of faith required to be a musician—both plunges with tough landings and potentially lethal undertows—is heady, catchy stuff.
I am, however, the one person in the room who believes that there is another, better choice in this category, and while I know arguing on its behalf is a futile gesture, there is a certain nobility in going down guns blazing. That song is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’s gorgeous, hilarious, unsettling “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” which was written for Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—one of three nominations for the brothers’ expert Old West pastiche.
When it was announced that Buster had scored a (well-deserved) nod in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, there was momentary confusion on my timeline: It was unclear to many whether the film, which is made up of six episodes set throughout the 19th century, was literally based on pre-existing material. In films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit, the Coens have worked directly from established texts, but more often than not, they’re specialists in a more unofficial, use-your-allusion form of adaptation, filtering specific references through broader genre tropes: think of the bits of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye that infiltrate The Big Lebowski, or how Miller’s Crossing lovingly plagiarizes Dashiell Hammett. But as explained in an Indiewire piece that ran the morning of the nominations, Buster Scruggs takes just enough from published short stories by Jack London and Stewart Edward White that it was submitted in the Adapted category.
Because I’m a little bit familiar with the Coens’ tendency to appropriate pre-existing material, I thought on my first viewing that “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” was, like the other featured selections on the film’s soundtrack, a dusty old classic. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens with Tim Blake Nelson’s title character strumming and singing a version of Bob Nolan’s 1936 hit “Cool Water,” a standard performed by Western balladeers like the Sons of the Pioneers and Marty Robbins, as well as Bing Crosby, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Muppets, the Replacements, Rango, and, um, Clint Eastwood in The Mule. The film closes two hours later with Brendan Gleeson’s a cappella rendition of an ancient Irish folk ballad called “The Unfortunate Lad.”
More even than Quentin Tarantino, the Coens are masters of potently contrapuntal pop cues, using tunes we know and love to heighten or mystify the onscreen action: “It’s the Same Old Song” in Blood Simple; “Danny Boy” in Miller’s Crossing; “Somebody to Love” in A Serious Man. This skill is even more apparent in their actual musicals, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, which are curated down to the last note, integrating decades-and-even-centuries-old deep cuts into their respective story lines at a molecular level. Think of how the Soggy Bottom Boys’ rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” replays The Odyssey’s tale of wandering and homecoming in miniature, or about the aching resonance of the tale of death-by-childbirth in “The Death of Queen Jane” in light of Llewyn Davis’s paternal anguish (arguably the most affecting scene in their entire filmography). So I figured that they’d trawled the archives for a tune about a fallen gunslinger and used it to narrate the demise of their movie’s misanthropic antihero, giving him a posthumous opportunity to live up to his nickname of “The San Saba Songbird.”
As it turns out, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” is in fact a brilliant original, made to order by Rawlings and Welch. (Welch worked with the Coens on O Brother, where she provided the voice for one of the Sirens on the hypnotic “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby.”) “It was a pretty straightforward thing,” Welch told Variety, recalling the Coens’ instructions. “‘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.”
The first lines are sung by the Kid, a black-hatted assassin played by folk singer Willie Watson, whose sweet face belies his character’s crackshot ruthlessness. Circularity, whether of objects or philosophical outlook, is a running theme in the Coens’ cinema, and the Kid’s killing of Scruggs—which happens more or less fair and square, during a duel agreed to by both parties—is visualized via a hilarious, chilling close-up of a perfectly round bullet hole in the latter’s 10-gallon hat. But the sense of circularity runs deeper, with the Kid’s victory framed as a natural, cyclical process, “as sure as the turning of the earth,” to quote John Ford’s genre standard The Searchers.
Let me tell you, buddy
There’s a faster gun
Coming over yonder
When tomorrow comes.
Let me tell you buddy
And it won’t be long
Till you find yourself singing
Your last cowboy song.
What’s key is that the cruel certainty of the Kid’s opening verse isn’t sung with any particular malice: It’s just the way of the world. Buster’s death may or may not be a punishment for the body count he’s accumulated over the years, but as he begins to harmonize with the Kid, it’s as if he’s found his reward—a chance to eulogize himself through that “one last cowboy song.” There’s pride in Buster’s harmonies, as well as the euphoria that comes with salvation: “Yippee ki-yi yay, he shalt be saved / When a cowboy trades his spurs for wings.”
On one level, the image of Buster’s soul escaping his body, sprouting fluffy wings, and strumming a phony-looking harp is an acknowledgement of the moment’s essential absurdity—as well as a deliberate nod to the character’s not-so-subtle connections to a cartoon icon (Caden Mark Gardner’s essay on Scruggs’ correspondences with the Looney Tunes universe, and Bugs Bunny’s Old West adventures in particular, is essential reading). It’s also more than a little creepy, as the Coens keep the camera at enough of a distance to take in the Kid, Buster’s corpse, and Buster’s ghost as they each set off on their paths beyond the frame—one to some other town to test his trigger finger against another (faster?) gun; one to an unmarked grave; and one to what may be a better place, whether or not he deserves to be there.
That The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has been for the most part underrated this Oscar season is not exactly a surprise. Between its muffled Netflix rollout and the Coens’ already-sagging awards shelf, there wasn’t a particularly urgent case for canonization. Still, I’d take it over every single one of the Best Picture nominees, because of its brilliant craftsmanship, and because its playfulness is laced with melancholy—a combination embodied perfectly by Welch and Rawlings’s de facto theme song. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” is surely goofy, features yodeling, and is also authentically beautiful. Like the movie it’s attached to, it never has to choose between extremes, instead letting them enfold each other, like a perfectly circular call-and-response arrangement. I’d give it the Oscar for the way its soaring melody seems to propel Buster upward—it’s the wind beneath his wings—evoking both a campfire sing-along and a church hymnal. The subtle way that Nelson torques his voice, as Buster exclaims “I’m glory-bound” when the song reaches its peak is a subtler gesture than Ally’s moaning at the apex of “Shallow,” but it achieves a similar sort of liftoff. Even if he’s six feet under, he’ll never meet the ground.