Howdy, pilgrim. Today we’re fixing to bust out a words-and-music tone poem inspired by Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel True Grit.
A true modern classic, True Grit — set in Arkansas and Oklahoma, around 1880 or so — tells the story of 14-year old Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge her father’s murder. Traveling to Fort Smith to retrieve her father’s body, Mattie learns that the killer, the Ross family’s erstwhile hired man Tom Chaney, has taken up with an outlaw gang and fled from Arkansas into the Choctaw territory — out of the jurisdiction of local authorities. Determined to see Chaney hang, Mattie hires the ruthless U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to track Chaney. But Chaney is also pursued by the ranger LaBoeuf, who wants to bring him in for an unrelated murder committed in Texas. Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf form an uneasy alliance as they ride into the big empty of Oklahoma in pursuit of Lucky Ned Pepper and his outlaw band.
A simple enough story. But True Grit is a triumph of style. The first-person narration from Mattie crackles with insight, and the dialogue is a consistent delight; the skewed formality of the language would influence later revisionist Westerns like Deadwood. And the characters are simply indelible. Mattie herself is endearing and exasperating in equal measure; she’s bright, resourceful, and plucky, but also a mouthy, judgmental little prig. LaBoeuf is a pompous blowhard, forever holding forth on the legendary prowess of the Texas Rangers — but when it comes down to it, he may actually be just as good as he claims.
Rooster Cogburn, for his part, has become an iconic figure in American literature — a pistol-packing Falstaff, hard as nails, who has “never known a dry day in his life,” loyal and fearless but capable of astonishing savagery. Rooster made his bones riding with Quantrill’s Raiders, participating in some of the worst atrocities of the US Civil War; he himself has lost track of how many men he has killed in his career as a Marshal. His slovenly habits and amoral ruthlessness both fascinate and repel the prim-and-proper Mattie, who is — for all her considerable strength of character — still a young girl very badly in need of a father. Their relationship, with its mutual incomprehension, its occasional resentments, and its eventual tentative affection, is the emotional heart of the work.
True Grit has been adapted twice for film. The first, in 1969, won John Wayne his only Oscar, for his portrayal of Rooster; but it misses much of what makes the book unique. Mattie is aged up, in the person of the 19-year old Kim Darby, fundamentally changing the character dynamic; the book’s stark, downbeat conclusion is softened; and Wayne’s performance takes off some of Rooster’s edges, reducing him to a lovable rogue. The 2010 version — written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen — is considerably more faithful to the spirit of the book, leaving its darker plot turns and its delves into the grotesque —and great chunks of its marvelous language — intact. The casting is ideal; Hailee Steinfeld, 13 at the time of filming, sparkles as Mattie, and Jeff Bridges gives a towering performance as Rooster. And the black-comic tone of the book — so tricky to pull off on film without recourse to Mattie’s smart-aleck narration — is right in the Coens’ wheelhouse.
Here’s that mix, for your dining and dancing pleasure. If you enjoy it — or if you have suggestions for upcoming installments — let us know in the comments. We do it all for you!
True Grit (1:15:49)
Conceptual Theater intro bumper
The Arkansas Traveler (edit) – David Grisman and Jerry Garcia
“In Arkansas, you should mind that your Texas trappings and title do not make you an object of fun.”
Dead Cowboy Song – Chris Whitley
“I was just 14 years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down and robbed him of his life and his horse and two California gold pieces…”
The Law Is Against My Heart – Union Of Knives
The wicked flee where none pursueth.
Call Off Your Horses – Hallelujah The Hills
“I have a tentative offer of $10 per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock.”
“It would be a shame to destroy such spirited horseflesh.”
“So it would. I am confident the deal will fall through.”
Silver Bullet – The Golden Palominos featuring Jack Bruce
“Who’s the best marshal?”
“I would have to weigh that. William Waters is the best tracker. He’s half Comanche and it is something to see him cut for sign. The meanest is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. The best is probably L.T. Quinn. He brings his prisoners in alive. Now, he might let one slip by every now and then, but…”
“Where can I find this Rooster?”
Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You – Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
“Ladies and gentlemen, beware and train up your children in the way that they should go. You see what has become of me because of drink. I killed a man in a trifling quarrel over a pocket-knife!”
Lone Star Song – Grant Lee Buffalo
“I am not accustomed to so large a fire. In Texas, we’ll make do with a fire of little more than twigs and buffalo chips to heat the night’s ration of beans.”
Chinese Choppers – Pray For Rain
“I am not a sharper. I am an old man sleeping in a rope bed in a room behind a Chinese grocery.”
The Rider Song – Nick Cave with Warren Ellis
“A coon hunt?!?”
Streamwalk – Richard Thompson
“We hit the river running and Blackie snorted and arched his back against the icy water, but once he was in he swam as though he was raised to it.”
Kit Carson – Bruce Cockburn
“The big shaggies is about all gone now. Damned shame. I’d give three dollars right now for a pickled buffalo tongue.”
Four Leaf Clover – Abra Moore
“Do you need a good lawyer?”
Pepper – Butthole Surfers
“…I need a good judge.”
The Dangling Man – Crime and the City Solution
“Why did they hang him so high?”
“I do not know. Possibly in the belief it’d make him more dead.”
Outlaw Song – Sixteen Horsepower
“Who is in there?”
“A Methodist and a son of a bitch!”
Thick As Thieves – Widowspeak
“We promised to bury the poor soul inside!”
“Ground’s too hard. If them men wanted a decent burial, they should have gotten themselves killed in summer.”
The Humours of Whiskey (edit) – Tim Lyons
(montage derived from Bear, performed by Johnny Whitehorse)
“You want to be kept in whiskey.”
“I don’t need to buy that. I confiscate it. I am an officer of the court.”
Silvermine – Hex
“There is a pit. Watch your footing.”
The Rooster – Alice In Chains
“Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”
The Maid of Constant Sorrow – John Hartford
“There are very few fiddle tunes I have not heard. Once heard they are locked in my mind forever. It is a sadness to me that I have sausage fingers that cannot crowd onto a fretboard.”
Rattlesnakes – Lloyd Cole & The Commotions
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
A Dead Horse – Robin Holcomb
“His heart burst and mine was broken.”
Oh, Bury Me Not (excerpt) – Johnny Cash
“I had the body removed to our plot and I have visited it over the years. No doubt people talk about that.”
interstitials: traditional grizzly bear songs of the Yorok, Tolwa, and Kwakiutl peoples
Conceptual Theater outro bumper
When next you see me in this space, I’ll be presenting my annual Labor Day mixtape. Until then, keep your ears open, and don’t believe everything you see.