From “The Gambler” to “Ode to Billie Joe,” good country songs tell good stories. It’s no wonder they inspire movies.
In late 2019, Netflix unveiled Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, a series of short films based on Dolly Parton songs. The first episode, “Jolene,” starred Parton herself alongside Julianne Hough as the infamous man-stealing redhead. Other episodes were taken from classic hits such as “Two Doors Down” and lesser-known album tracks such as “J.J. Sneed.”
Heartstrings is a welcome return to the bygone practice of adapting songs into movies. Country music lends itself especially well to such treatment because the vivid stories in the lyrics make the screenwriter’s job so much easier. Just cast the characters and you’re good to go.
Parton’s close friend and collaborator Kenny Rogers helped to inaugurate this trend 40 years ago with The Gambler (1980), which was such a ratings hit in its debut that it inspired four sequels. In playing the fictional Old West gambler Brady Hawkes — and starring in another made-for-TV film in 1981, based on his hit “Coward of the County” — Rogers also helped to inaugurate the practice of the singer who originated the song also starring in the movie.
Willie Nelson’s landmark 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger, seemed headed for the big screen with big studio backing in 1979, until Robert Redford turned down the title role. Nelson would later play the title character in a less-ambitious independent film released in 1986.
Jimmy Dean’s last appearance in a theatrical film came in Big Bad John (1990), based on his 1961 hit. That 29-year journey from song to screen is a record that may never be broken.
More recently, Toby Keith starred in the movie version of Beer for My Horses (2008) and co-wrote the script (with Rodney Carrington). It’s worth seeing just for the Grand Ole Opry lineup of guest stars, including Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, Mac Davis, and David Allan Coe.
Answers At Last
If there is one drawback to these movies, it’s that there are no twists or surprises that aren’t already laid out in the song lyrics. But three chart-topping hits kept listeners guessing, and the movies filled in the answers.
“Convoy” was a memorable 1975 novelty track by C.W. McCall that cashed in on the CB radio craze. In the song’s final verse, a thousand screaming trucks crash through a tollgate near the Jersey shore. The film version, directed by Sam Peckinpah, doesn’t exactly pick up the story from there, but we do find out how the convoy is finally stopped. At the height of his outlaw appeal, Kris Kristofferson played the ringleader known as Rubber Duck, opposite Ali MacGraw and Burt Young. It’s the kind of film that goes great with a drive-in and a greasy tub of popcorn.
In Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967), the central mystery is never resolved — what exactly did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge before he later threw himself off? The trailer for the 1976 movie promised that “what the song didn’t tell you, the movie will show you.”
Gentry is listed as one of the screenwriters, but whether that makes the solution an official one is up for debate. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn’t.” (Gentry herself once explained that the fictional song was inspired by the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.)
The story in Tom T. Hall’s 1968 classic “Harper Valley PTA” ends with a feisty mom in a miniskirt calling out the hypocrites at her daughter’s school. But what happens next? The story continues in a 1978 film starring Barbara Eden as Stella Johnson, who doesn’t just verbally dress down the other PTA members but also pranks each one in humiliating fashion. Eden reprised the role in a 1981 sitcom that was more family-friendly, but NBC socked it to the show with a cancellation notice after two seasons.
Three Songs That Should Be Movies
Everything necessary for a classic western is just waiting to be extracted from Marty Robbins’ iconic cowboy ballad: romance, action, vivid images of a whirling Mexican maiden, and a jealous cowboy’s last desperate ride to share one more kiss in Rosa’s Cantina.
“Big Joe and Phantom 309”
Big Joe’s supernatural truck appears out of the mists to help travelers in peril. Maybe this would work better as an anthology television series, like an open-road version of Touched by an Angel.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
What better way to pay tribute to the recently departed Charlie Daniels than with a film version of the classic fiddle duel between Johnny and the ruler of the underworld?
Photography: (Cover image) Collection Christophel/Alamy, (Kenny Rogers) Gary Null/MPTV, (Willie Nelson) Alive Films/Photofest