"The Horse Whisperer" Soundtrack

By Joe Heim
Published April 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

At last count, "The Horse Whisperer," Nicholas Evans' bestselling novel, had over 10 million copies in print and had been translated into three dozen languages. Robert Redford reportedly paid Evans $3 million for the movie rights to the book, and the film version -- directed by and starring (you guessed it) Robert Redford -- is due out May 15.

Even in the wake of the doomed big boat, this film about a love affair between a horse-taming loner (Redford) and a high-powered magazine editor (Kristin Scott Thomas) is expected to do well. And because of that, some deserving musicians may finally get their due from a much wider audience than they are accustomed to.

Whatever its merits as a movie, "The Horse Whisperer's" remarkable soundtrack is one of the most honest and moving collections of Western and country music to ever accompany a film. Loveliness and loneliness conspire on song after song to create a palpable sense of the desperate romantic West, one that is neither sentimental nor contrived, but wrought from the unrelenting pangs of wanting, desire and hope against wide-open hope.

Beginning with the ethereal yodel on Dwight Yoakam's cover of the cowboy classic "Cattle Call," the soundtrack immediately immerses you in its roundup clime. Cowboy mystique, untamed and yearning, burns through such songs as Don Walser's rough-riding "Big Balls in Cowtown" and George Strait's plaintive rendition of "Red River Valley."

Fans of newer, alternative country will embrace the standout contributions of folks like Steve Earle, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. Williams, who recently has had all sorts of trouble getting an album of her own out, reminds us of her exceptional talent with "Still I Long for Your Kiss," a gritty, heart-rending remembrance of love lost. And Dement's piercingly beautiful cover of "Whispering Pines" lingers long after the music has been turned off.

Much of the buzz surrounding this soundtrack centers on the reunion of the Lubbock, Texas, band the Flatlanders. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and a number of other musicians first formed the short-lived group in 1972, though their only album, "More a Legend Than a Band," a collection of old recordings, was not released until 1990. Unfortunately, "South Wind of Summer," the song Gilmore, Ely and Hancock contribute to the soundtrack, is overwrought and flirts dangerously with lonesome prairie convention. The song's failings are minor, but as the expectations for this reunion were high, so too is the disappointment in its results.

With that minor exception, this remains a soundtrack filled with subtle and not-so-subtle rewards. Emmylou Harris, who seems incapable of making a bad recording, delivers another strong effort here with the dark and moody "Slow Surprise," while "Dream River," by the Mavericks' Raul Malo, is a tranquil gem. On a collection of songs and performances this good, it seems pointless to select one as the best, but "A Soft Place to Fall," co-written and sung by silky, smoky-voiced newcomer Allison Moorer, is a beautifully sad, hard-luck-at-love tale that will leave even the toughest cowboy wiping away tears.

Readers of Evans' novel are no doubt hoping that Redford's adaptation will be faithful to the author's story and won't ruin the experience of reading it (as Hollywood films so often do). Anyone who listens to this magnificent soundtrack before seeing the film will approach the movie with the same trepidation.

Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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