Two-time Oscar nominee Carter Burwell has penned music for the films of Joel and Ethan Coen for more than 30 years, including such classics as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.” But “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was unique: a six-part Western with stories ranging from comic to bleak. As Joel Coen told him, the single thread that bound all six together was that they all involved “non-accidental death.”
“Each of the films is so different in tone and characters and story that I couldn’t find a musical solution that would work for all of them,” Burwell concedes. Ultimately, he decided to bookend the film with versions of the old cowboy song “Streets of Laredo,” and there are guitars, harmonica and tack piano sprinkled throughout.
But, he adds, “We needed a big, traditional Western sound” for four of the six segments, which needed “a Dimitri Tiomkin sense of scale,” referring to the composer of such ’50s classics as “High Noon” and “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” This was especially true for the segment with Tom Waits as a gold prospector and one with Zoe Kazan as a would-be bride on a wagon train headed for Oregon.
Burwell researched old cowboy songs, recorded in the early 20th century for the Library of Congress. “They’re generally lonely and sad songs,” he says, “but I wouldn’t say anything I wrote was especially inspired by them.” He focused on “the folkier aspects of the orchestra” without leaning too far into Classic Western territory; “it’s still a Coen Brothers movie,” he notes.