Mary Steenburgen on Her Movie Tunesmith Side Career: ‘People Tried to Discourage Me — But It Didn’t Take’

The actress is being talked up for awards consideration for a ballad she co-wrote to be sung on-screen as the climax of the indie film "Wild Rose."

Mary Steenburgen Wild Rose New York
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Mary Steenburgen has a long and storied enough career that it may be difficult to think of her as an underdog. But as a songwriter, she counts. The actress has been moonlighting as a tunesmith for the last 12 years, and now may be coming into the daylight with a number that’s getting a fair amount of attention in the best original film song conversation. “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” which she co-wrote with Caitlyn Smith and Kate York, is performed as the on-screen climax of the well-reviewed indie film “Wild Rose,” and it’s suddenly gathering some heat, six months after the movie’s premiere.

“It’s up against some big juggernaut movies,” Steenburgen said after screening the film for friends Friday night at Raleigh Studios. “I suppose it’s a long shot, and I’ve never been through this with a song before, so I don’t really know what to think. But I just feel lucky to have done it. And every time I watch it, it blows my mind that I got to do it. So, I mean, whatever happens, it’s good.” She mentions what may be the real award out of all this: “I like that people kind of are finally knowing what I’ve been up to for 12 years now.”

One thing her “Wild Rose” tune has going for it that a lot of the juggernauts don’t is that it’s an emotional linchpin for the movie — not unlike last year’s Oscar winner, “Shallow,” from “A Star Is Born,” although this one happens to soundtrack the final scene, instead of a turning point in the middle. “Wild Rose” is about a young, somewhat self-destructive, ex-con mom in Scotland who dreams of turning her local success on Glasgow’s tiny country music circuit into a career in Nashville. At the end of the movie (emotional spoiler alert), the character played by Jessie Buckley delivers a ballad to a local crowd about being satisfied just where she is.”Most of the time you’re submitting songs to be end-credit songs that are as people are starting to leave and getting their things together, and this is the moment that is really the focus of that character,” Steenburgen points out.

Steenburgen is a dark horse in the Oscar race, and maybe even to make the best song shortlist. The song hardly even made any lists of likely contenders a few weeks ago, versus the “Frozen 2s,” “Aladdins” and “Rocketmans” of the world. But it’s had its champions, like David Ehrlich of IndieWire, who called it “the best original movie song of the year,” and the tune just picked up a nomination for the Critics Choice Movie Awards.

It’s already a good amount of validation for someone who’s been mostly flying under the radar since she took up songwriting in 2007 — a career sub-path she took after suddenly awakening from an operation with music in her head that she couldn’t seem to shake.

“There were a few people that encouraged me. There were lots of people that tried to discourage me, but it didn’t take, obviously,” she laughs. “It’s a weird thing to start something new when you’re 54 years old” (she’s now 66). “You know, that’s past the age most people think of starting a whole new thing. And I just needed to do it, and did it. A lot of the people I write with, including the women that I wrote this with, are half my age or even less than half of my age, and they’re so accomplished and amazing. But we’re all in the end just telling stories. And so it feels very similar to what I’ve done all these years, in a way.”

Steenburgen is now signed to Warner Chappell for her publishing, but was with Universal when she was sent a notice that filmmakers were looking for a climactic song for a movie that was then simply called “Country Music.” (Good idea for a name change, on that one.) She asked to get the whole script so she and her collaborators could tailor it more specifically as a culmination of the plot, which has the Rose-Lynn character running into a wall of defeatism from her long-suffering mother, played by Julie Walters.

“I just thought, if I were playing that part of Rose-Lynn, what would I need to say to my mother and my children at that point? So the song is really a love song to Julie Walters’ character. I also wanted to write that song with women, because I felt like it was such a mother-daughter thing. It just tumbled out of the three of us, really. (The filmmakers) changed one line. We wrote, ‘Mama, we both know that there’s nothing that a little wine and Patsy Cline can’t fix,’ and they changed it to ‘a little of time and Patsy Cline,’ because they wanted Julie’s character to have gotten sober.”

The Nashville milieu — or at least Nashville wanna-be milieu — of “Wild Rose” is not at all unfamiliar to the actress. Although she’s spent a lot of time working with pop songwriters in L.A., too, she’s spent probably more hooking up with tunesmiths in Nashville. She even bought a home there, although she just sold it a few months ago, after signing on to a TV series in Vancouver that made it seem unwise to keep a place that far away. Some of her best friends include John and TJ Osborne of the hit country-rock duo Brothers Osborne, and John’s wife Lucie Silvas, who stay at the Steenburgen/Danson residence when they’re in L.A. The Hollywood couple was just out in Music City at the beginning of November to give Brothers Osborne a special honor at the ASCAP Awards. (Steenburgen, Silvas and the brothers have collaborated on a song for Earth Day that will be out for the event’s 50th anniversary in April, accompanied by an animated short film that’s in production.)

Someone else who was being honored that night besides the brothers was Randy Travis, with a lifetime achievement award. Steenburgen was thrilled to meet him, and not just as a random fan.

The country legend “actually is a part of this story,” she says. “Because once I started writing, while I was doing a movie in New Mexico, my driver heard me talking about my music and asked me to play some of it for him, so I made a little CD for him and didn’t think any more about it. Then I was in Martha’s Vineyard maybe a month or so later, and the phone rings and it’s Randy Travis. I said, ‘How would you even know to call me?’ He said, ‘My UPS driver was your driver on that movie and he gave me your CD and your number, and I’m calling you to tell you: You should definitely write music.’ I had never met him in person till that night at the ASCAP Awards, and of course he had the stroke since then, but he remembered the whole thing, and it was meaningful to get to visit with him and his wife.”

Steenburgen has had a few songs in films before, including several for 2013’s “Last Vegas,” in which she also acted against Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman. But although “Wild Rose” is a smaller film, it’s magnified her songwriting career in a bigger way, since the “Glasgow” song is probably the movie’s sole shot at getting nominated (even though, in a just or at least less crowded world, leading lady Jessie Buckley would be getting awards talk, too).

“The interesting thing for me about this is that if you have kids — we (she and husband Ted Danson) have four — you stand out on the soccer field, or you go to the piano recitals, and you always say, ‘You can do anything. If you want this, just go for it and try it.’ Or you tell them, ‘You can learn this,’ whether it’s to speak a language or whatever. And there’s a certain point in your life where people kind of stop saying that to you. And I started writing music at the point past where people say that to you. And so it was very confusing to some people because they go, ‘Well, you have a career already. You already do something.’ And it’s like: I know!” She laughs. “And I really enjoy it. I love it. But I’m gonna do this too. And somewhere, someone‘s telling me to do it, so I do.”