CEDAR RAPIDS - Ronny Cox plays bad guys oh, so well. He plays music and audiences with equal aplomb.
He got his big break 42 years ago as the guitar half of "Dueling Banjos" in the harrowing film, "Deliverance." On Sunday (8/31/14), his folk trio delivered the goods at CSPS Hall, as the capstone to the two-day New Bohemia Arts Festival.
The movie star and his stellar crew didn't just fly in for the concert.
Cox regaled a full house in the CSPS "C" Space theater Saturday night with film clips and a discussion of the career that's taken him from "Deliverance" in 1972 to "RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Murder at 1600," "Stargate SG-1," "Desperate Housewives," "Dexter" and more than 120 other memorable roles in between.
Sunday afternoon, he stopped by NewBo Books to sign copies of the audio version of his 2012 autobiographical "Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew." He said he prefers the audio recording over the hard-bound book, since it allows him to tell his stories.
That's what he does best.
Every song he's written tells a story, every song he's covered tells a story and every song he sings in concert is delivered with a story.
He is charming beyond belief.
He greeted every audience member on the way into the concert hall and on the way out. He posed for photos, shook hands warmly and seemed to bask in our glow as much as we did in his.
The entire concert was aglow in warmth and star power. Not only is Cox a consummate storyteller, he's a really wonderful musician who surrounds himself with other wonderful musicians, including Iowa City native Radoslav Lorkovic on accordion and keyboards and T Bruce Bowers on fiddle and mandolin. The way Bowers plays his instrument, however, it's every inch a refined violin.
Among the eight or so CDs Cox has recorded is a 2002 collection called "Cowboy Savant." That's a pretty apt description of this rural New Mexico native who writes with a swagger and sings with a cry in his voice on his heartbreaking ballads. Even when he's playing indoors for a couple hundred people, it feels like he's strumming around a campfire, trading stories with old friends.
Now 76, time has etched beautifully expressive lines on his famous face, and his eyes crinkle merrily as shares tall tales, truisms and anecdotes with a great shining smile we seldom see from his menacing on-screen personas.
From the first strains of the bouncy "How I Love Them Old Songs," you know you're in for an intimate evening full of special moments.
He sings of the rugged outdoors with a tenderness bubbling from the bottomless well of his soul. He and his band switch easily from a loping toe-tapping mode to reverent hushed tones for the lovely "Sanctuary." Beautiful tight harmonies and mournful mandolin envelop the plight of wild mares striving to survive with their newborn foals in harsh Western surroundings.
He's as delightful as he is deep, sharing another side of his youth in the whimsical "Hot Water Corn Bread," a special Sunday morning treat lovingly made by the neighbor lady he called "Grandma." He says she "couldn't sing a lick," but that didn't stop her from caterwauling with abandon as she cooked a hot dish over a hot stove.
For more than two hours, Cox held his audience spellbound, as every single song captured our imaginations. Some made us laugh out loud, like his hilarious homage to his hometown, and several made us cry.
He loved one woman in this life. Mary moved to Portales, N.M, from Elk Horn, Iowa, when she was 11 and he was 14. They were high school sweethearts who married in 1960, supported each other through her Ph.D. and postgraduate work in chemistry out east, his college education and career, two sons and two grandchildren.
"I never had another girlfriend or another date," he said.
When she died in December 2006, music became a lifeline that allowed him to grieve publicly. And even though he said "Sweet Memories" is intended as a "celebratory song," you could hear hearts breaking throughout the concert hall with this song so utterly pure in its love.
Sighs turned to smiles as he spoke of another light in his life, his granddaughter, Catherine. She came into the world at 1 pound 10 ounces, so small they were afraid to get too attached to her, for fear they wouldn't get to keep her. That didn't happen. She's just entered eighth grade, lives across the street from him in Los Angeles, and hops over to his house every day after school to do her homework and share dinner.
"She's really, really, really brilliant and a really, really, really smart-alecky girl," he said. Qualities he loves so much that he wrote a song for her and "people like her, who survived against all odds, because they have something to do." It's a really, really, really brilliant song.
Just like everything her grandpa creates.