I walked up the stairs to the lobby of the Aud for the Folk Festival's big event last Saturday, not knowing much about the headliner other than he was the one who played the "Dueling Banjos" role in the 1972 movie "Deliverance." That's about it.
At the top of the stairs this tall fellow stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Ronny and I'm glad you're here."
Under the black fedora was a smiling face, one of those that seems familiar, but you can't place it. I was early so I went about getting my cameras situated in a front seat and went back to the lobby to try to place the face. I watched as Ronny Cox greeted everyone entering the Auditorium.
I still couldn't place the face. I was just there to take a few pictures of this singer who acted in "Deliverance" and leave, hoping he would do "Dueling Banjos" soon so I could get gone.
The opening act was Michael Cockram, winner of the 2011 Folk Festival Songwriters' Contest. He played guitar, mandolin, banjo, and sung, accompanied by Susan Shore on mandolin, guitar, and with vocals. Here was my plan. I would sit through these Fayetteville singers and grab a few shots of them while waiting for Ronny Cox.
I love music of all kinds, though I'm not a card-carrying aficionado of any one genre. But when I hear music I like, whether a top 40 piece from my younger days, an opera at Inspiration Point or a good jazz or bluegrass set, I can really get into it. And I really got into Michael and Susan's music. They played music of their own creation and through clear voices with wonderful picking and harmony I got lost in the sound and regretted when it when their allotted time was up and left the stage.
Folk music tells the stories of life their lyrics definitely hit the narrative-nail on the head. Plus their technique was spot on. "OK," I told myself, "this may not be too bad."
I was in a good mood when they closed their set and discovered there was another act. I was especially happy when they announced that the next musician would be Jack Williams. At last a singer I knew... from public radio shows like Folk Sampler and others.
Jack's set proved to be a dynamite live show. Or should I say Jack was pure dynamite.
The South Carolina-born singer/songwriter performed four of his own pieces and one of the best interpretations of the Robbie Robertson song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" since The Band and Levon Helm. Jack commented that that song explains a lot about the south and its relationship to the rest of the nation.
Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary, has called Jack "The best guitar-player I've ever heard." And he was right. I was mesmerized by the picking and fret-work up and down the neck of the instrument.
I was hooked. If he was performing with these guys I was going to give this actor a chance.
Between Jack's set and Ronny I decided to google Ronny Cox on my IPhone and check him out. His website, ronnycox.com, came up and I went to his filmography link. I wanted to see where I had seen his face before. I hadn't seen "Deliverance" in years.
It turns out that I was familiar with him after all... as Captain Bogomil in "Beverly Hills Cop" and as the self-serving Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen in "Total Recall." Now I placed the face under the fedora, framed with longish white hair peeking out on the sides and a white goatee and mustache.
This would be interesting after all. I heard he was a good musician; but then again Natalie Wood thought she had done a great job singing in "West Side Story" only to find out they used Marni Nixon to overdub over her pieces. It seems other actors who have performed are told by their agents and press folks how wonderful they are. Often, if it weren't for their names they couldn't make it as professional musicians.
But Ronnie Cox is the real deal. He can play. He can sing. And he can write songs as well.
By the second song I had forgotten all about "Dueling Banjos" and was wrapped up in what was coming from mellow baritone voice, along with his friends. He performed not only his own work but songs by Jack Williams, Micky Newbury, and others. "How I Love Them Old Songs" was perhaps most telling and descriptive of the kind of music Ronny sings today.
He grew up in Portales, New Mexico listening to Texas Swing tunes, but then played rock & roll in high school, and was eventually drawn to folk music after graduating from college. And it shows. Besides folk I heard bits of bluegrass, old-fashioned country and that Texas swing.
He went through his two hour set straigh, with no intermission. It seemed like half-and-hour.
Midway through Ronnie grinned and said, "I said I wasn't going to do this," and then plucked those familiar first four notes of "Dueling Banjos," much to the crowds' delight. "You probably tell that to all your Audiences." But to tell you the truth, that's the first time I had even thought about it.
You haven't heard "Dueling Banjos" until you've heard it with two guitars, two mandolins and an accordion. The final portion of "Banjos" was dominated by the mandolins, playing in a sort of minor-key Russian folk-style. "Dueling balalaikas," he said to wild and appreciative applause.
Other songs on his play list I would recommend are: "Sanctuary," "A Big Truck Brought It," Compadres in the Old Sierra Madres," and a song about the town where he grew up, "Portales."
When I asked him what he wanted to be remembered for Ronny said, "Everything... the acting, music, I write songs, I've written a book, produced movies, written a screen play. All of it," he said with sincere humility. "But nothing cuts through to the heart like music."
"I love acting, but I don't love it as much as music," he said. "And the reason I don't is because of the personal connection that you can make through music. I like my music to feel like a shared evening, and I want us to feel like we're all in this together."
I asked about greeting everyone at the door. "If it's a manageable size I try to say 'hello' to everybody before it [the show] starts," Ronnie said. "That's the whole idea of folk music... [that's what] drives me to folk music."
The show was billed as "Ronny Cox and Friends." His "friends" were just that, good friends, and world-class musicians in their own rights. Playing with him at the Aud were: Radoslav Lorkovic, piano, accordion and vocals; Karen Mal, mandolin and vocals, and whom he referred to as his "adopted" daughter; Keith Grimwood, on bass and currently half of Trout Fishing In America; Jack Williams, guitar and vocals; Chojo Jacques, mandolin and fiddle, formerly with The Waybacks. Just the band alone would be worth the price of admission. Add Ronny Cox and you've got a show I would pay double to see again. Ray Dilfield, manager of The Aud would agree. "Most musicians' contracts say they can bow out or cancel a contract date if they get a movie or TV date offer. Ronny's contract specifies that he can bow out of a movie or TV contract to do a concert." That's a dedication to the music that Ronny Cox has, and a venue manager and music-lover like Dilfield appreciates.