Ronny Cox was introduced to the mass movie audience with a piece of folk music.
The film was “Deliverance,” director John Boorman’s 1972 survival thriller tale about four Atlanta businessmen who get more than they bargained for on a canoe trip through remote Georgia river country. It was Cox’s first movie. In fact, it was his first time in front of a camera.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Cox plays guitar with a towheaded backwoods kid on banjo. The tune was “Dueling Banjos,” a sort of call-and-response instrumental that was based on an older song called “Feudin’ Banjos.” The song and the soundtrack album became massive hits.
“I was a struggling unknown actor in New York,” Cox said. “They came to New York looking for unknown actors, and I was certainly that. And that was Ned Beatty’s first film. He and I had done about 20 plays together in Washington at the Arena Stage.”
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Cox really played the guitar. And he said his fingering in the scene is correct. But the music on the soundtrack was performed by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell.
“There are three movies that are generally credited with the resurgence of bluegrass music in films,” Cox said. “ ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘Deliverance’ and ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou.’ Here’s the thing. The kid, Billy Redden is his name, couldn’t play the banjo at all. He didn’t even know enough about the banjo to even make it look right. That’s not even his left arm.”
According to Cox, Redden positioned his left arm behind his back as far as it could go. Another musician’s arm and hand did the actual fretting.
“We didn’t even have real strings on the banjo,” Cox said. “They had rubberized strings or something. But I learned it note for note. And John Boorman wasn’t even interested in making a hit tune, but he kind of liked the idea that this savant kid shows up an amateur guitar player.
“I could have gone to Atlanta to record it, but I would have missed a day of canoe practice. Did I play it? Yes. Is that me on the soundtrack? No. Did that cost me about a million bucks? Yes.”
Cox will be in Kansas City this week, playing no other role than that of working musician as he attends the Folk Alliance International Conference, the five-day trade show that attracts musical talent from around the globe.
Cox said his musical ability occasionally helped his acting career in the wake of “Deliverance.” His next film was “Bound for Glory,” in which David Carradine played Woody Guthrie. In the meantime, he got a lot of work on television playing urban characters. Ultimately two high-profile movies — “RoboCop” and “Total Recall” — fixed him in the public imagination as a corporate bad guy.
“I had such success playing, generally, men of authority, and a lot of the guys were guys in suits and ties,” he said. “So when people see me play and sing it messes with their heads a little bit.”
Cox, 77, grew up in New Mexico and did some recording in Norman Petty’s legendary studio in Clovis, where Buddy Holly cut his first records. He didn’t get serious about a music career until the early ’90s.
“Now I spend 80 or 90 percent of my time on folk music,” he said. “I’m not rich, but I have enough money to do it. I play between 65 to 80 gigs a year. I love playing the shows. Traveling can sometimes be a pain in the butt. But I never feel more vital and alive and connected than when I’m performing.
“My shows are completely different from anybody else’s. If it’s 500 people or less I will try to have a conversation with every person there. Before the show I’m out there talking to people. I ask them to leave the house lights up … because I want to be able to look out and see the people. The whole idea is that I want my show to feel like a shared evening.”
Cox said the majority of his music gigs come from contacts he makes at the alliance conference, which runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. Public showcases will be Wednesday through Saturday. Tickets cost $25 per person each night. (Cox will perform a private showcase available only to registered members of the alliance.)
Cox, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks, said he always honors his music commitments. If he has a choice between appearing in a film or TV show and honoring a gig he booked months earlier, music usually wins out.
“They have to offer me lots of money, or I have to really want to do it,” he said of the film work. “I won’t let any movie or TV show interfere with a gig I already have booked. It can be the biggest movie in the world. Try explaining that to somebody in the film business.”
Cox considers himself a lucky guy. He has made his living with acting or music most of his adult life.
“I can honestly say I have never as an actor or as a musician dreaded going to work,” he said. “It’s always been such a joy to go and do the work.”