Roll Out, Cowboy
Directed by: Elizabeth Lawrence
Thursday, November 11, 7:45 p.m.,
Thalian Hall Black Box Theater
After a tour of the Midwest, Chris “Sandman” Sand returns to Dunn Center, North Dakota—population: 120 and dropping. He is exhausted. He has travelled from state to state, and performed on backyard porches and bar stages as the Rapping Cowboy—a mixture of, well, cowboy ballads and hip-hop. He has not broken even. The answer to his financial woes: trucking school.
Somewhere outside the frame, director Elizabeth Lawrence asks, “So, why truck driving?” Sand thinks about the question for only a second and then looking just past the camera, says, “I feel like getting out of debt is a key element.” His gaze strays for a second. “Truckin’ sucks.” For Sand, the perks and thorns of occupations don’t matter. This is simply a gig. Income is the only outcome—just enough to get back out on the road and lose it all again.
On November 11th, Chris Sand will somehow make it all the way down to Wilmington to see the screening of “Roll Out, Cowboy” and to perform at the Cucalorus Kickoff Party at the Soapbox (sponsored by encore magazine). I asked Lawrence if this was something Sand was doing at a lot of the film festivals.
“It’s been difficult,” she says. She asks if I’ve seen the film. I have. She says, “Well, Chris is trucking again.” We laugh.
It’s sorta ridiculous: Sand is the subject of a film winning documentary awards all over the festival circuit. Yet, he can’t attend because he’s driving a semi up and down the United States—a job that he hates. This just adds to the movie’s depiction of Sand.
We are introduced to him as a cowboy with big dreams—he wants to fix up an old bus and take it on tour with rap/comedy duo Mustaches. At first he seems like a character the “Napoleon Dynamite” guy would be typecast as: a confused Midwesterner who’s split between two genres of popular American music on opposite sides of the spectrum. And he’s trying to support himself on it.
His music and his life on the road, combined with his should-be-condemned house, in a town where his only friends are women over the age of 60, makes Sand ripe for documentation. The result is nearly unremitting comedy. Lawrence’s brilliance is in recognizing that.
As her debut feature, Lawrence discovered her subject at a concert in Chicago 10 years ago. “He was opening,” she says. “He struts onstage in his Wrangler jeans, and he grabs the microphone and he’s wearing a cowboy hat—a totally legit cowboy. He’s like, ‘I’m gonna do old-school beat boxing.’ [H]e started doing his thing, and I loved it! I loved his country songs. I loved his rap songs. So, I got a couple of his records that night.”
Five years later, Lawrence unintentionally found herself at another Sandman show, and, deciding it was destiny, proposed the documentary. “To make a documentary,” Lawrence says, “you have to be a fan of whatever your subject is. You have to really love your subject matter. For three years, I never got tired of it. He has like 500 songs, so even when we were cutting the movie, and we would reach a roadblock, I would always find an answer in his music for the narrative. His work and the movie would inspire each other and keep the project moving forward.”
Sand is an incredibly prolific songwriter, with over 15 albums to his name. He is constantly drawing comparisons to Woody Guthrie, and it’s very easy to see why. He dresses like Guthrie. He roams all across the countryside like Guthrie. His voice lolls in a low range, often somewhere between talking and singing, just like Guthrie. And just as his predecessor’s guitar bore the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists,” Sand takes a strong stand politically, reaching out to both parties.
“There’s a strong philosophical divide,” Sand says during the film, “and I really do want to be a healing bridge between those two worlds.”
The documentary was shot during the 2008 presidential election, and so the battle between blue and red states becomes a powerful counter-narrative to the Sandman tour. “His songs are political,” Lawrence says. “I didn’t want to make a movie just about the Rapping Cowboy. I wanted to have a little bit of an angle. It just so happened that we were shooting during the election, so it kind of made sense that [the film] would fall under a bigger umbrella.”
Unlike Guthrie, amongst the political folk laments and whimsical country tunes, the Sandman’s concerts have “Cowboy Raps” interspersed throughout. In the beginning it just seems like a novelty act. He sings a couple, he raps a couple. It’s sorta new, but he’s not really breaking down boundaries.
As the film rolls on, beautifully paced with impeccable wit, the Cowboy’s disposition is revealed. This is the only way a 21st-century Woody Guthrie could perform. Rap has become the gateway music for kids of the new millennium—the post-’80s generations are raised on it. So, of course when hip-hop hit Sand in western Montana, it stuck to him. He just never buried it. This is the only voice a political singer-songwriter could have nowadays. Woody Guthrie is gone.
As far as sheer entertainment value, “Roll Out, Cowboy” is on par with “Man on Wire” (2008). The difference is Phillip Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers was already history, whereas Lawrence takes a subject who outwardly doesn’t seem important and makes his significance concrete. The beauty in this film is how easy it is to go from skepticism to complete admiration for the Rapping Cowboy. Chris “Sandman” Sand matters, as does this film.