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Running from 'Angelina' to Zappa with visiting musician(!) Billy Bob

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Billy Bob Thornton is going on tour, but first he has to finish Manure. It's the final night of shooting for this latest film from the Polish brothers (the directors of Twin Falls Idaho and other cult masterpieces), and it's only a matter of time before he's called back to the set.

But for Thornton, talking about music comes in a close second to playing it and it turns out he does both better than any other of today's Hollywood stars. So, true to his word, Thornton calls back the next afternoon to resume a conversation that ranges from his early years in Hot Springs, Ark., as a fanboy and roadie to the music career he all but abandoned in the mid-'90s, when his Oscar-winning Sling Blade (which he wrote, directed and starred in) made him a sensation.

While it has yet to assume the notoriety of his endeavors in film (The Man Who Wasn't There, A Simple Plan, Friday Night Lights and, of course, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown} or marriage (most famously to actress Angelina Jolie), Thornton's musical side resurfaced with four solo albums between 2001 and 2007. But it's a critically adored double CD with his new group, the Boxmasters, released last month on Vanguard, that threatens to take his musical talents beyond a relatively small circle of friends and admirers and will also bring him to downtown's Thirsty Parrot next week.

While one disc consists of original songs written or co-written by Thornton, the other features covers of songs by the likes of Mike Nesmith, Ian Hunter, Mel Tillis and even the Beatles, whose "I Want to Hold Your Hand" few bands have had the balls to perform since, well, the Chipmunks. As rendered by Thornton's Boxmasters, the songs take on an upbeat, electric hillbilly sensibility that makes the self-titled collection one of the most satisfying debuts in recent memory.

In the following interview, the 52-year-old Thornton maintains his Southern bonhomie and a working-class sensitivity that has somehow managed to survive being seduced by the Hollywood machine.

Then again, it could just be an act.

Indy: I've always thought the Polish brothers are brilliant directors. What's this new film about?

BBT: It's about manure salesmen in the early '60s. We sell fertilizer to farmers and stuff. But it makes a big statement on corporate America, actually. And it's a dark comedy, as you can imagine. Along the lines of the Coen brothers or something, but probably more like their first movies than [The] Astronaut Farmer, which was more their commercial venture. Remember the movie Tin Men?

Indy: Yeah, I do actually.

BBT: OK, well imagine Tin Men or Glengarry Glen Ross or whatever but with shit. It takes place in Kansas, and I've worked for the company forever. I'm kind of the lead manure salesman.

And what happens is the old man Rose, who's owned the company for all these years that I've been there, he dies and it's inherited by his daughter, who's played by Tea Leoni. All of a sudden she's got this company to deal with, and then this big corporation of fertilizer people come in and try to take over the territory. So it becomes a war between David and Goliath over fertilizer. It's pretty great. I think you'll dig it.

Indy: Let's talk about the record. I'm guessing this is the first time that Louvin Brothers and Mott the Hoople songs are covered on the same CD.

BBT: Probably so. I don't know that anybody in the hillbilly world ever covered a Mott the Hoople song. I was a huge fan of Mott the Hoople, and their record, Wildlife, was one of my favorites.

Indy: You also cover the song "She's Lookin' Better by the Minute," which is credited in your bio to Ernest Tubb, but in the liner notes to Jimmy Helms and Grant Townsley. Did Tubb just sing it?

BBT: Well, we know it by the Wilburn Brothers, who I actually knew when I was a kid. They were from Arkansas, and the Wilburns used to have a TV show on Saturdays, just like Porter Wagoner did. That's who I always knew the song by. But whatever's written on the record is probably right, because our legal department goes through all that stuff. But I know that Ernest Tubb did do the song.

Indy: Your bandmate J.D. [Andrew, see "The boys in the Box," http://www.csindy.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A27485] told me you spent some time driving around Nashville with the Wilburn Brothers.

BBT: Oh yeah, with Teddy Wilburn. He's the one that my mom had a crush on when she was a teenager. Teddy passed away a few years ago, and Doyle passed away several years before that. They were real good to me.

When I went to Nashville in '77 to become a songwriter, they were the only people I had any connection to whatsoever. And I didn't really know them, because I was too young when they used to play in our little town. But I called them up and they had a publishing company and I went up there and he started teaching me about writing songs. Because I showed him some of mine, and he goes, "Boy, this writing is really good, but let me show you a little more about structure," and this kind of thing. And he had a limousine, Teddy, and we were at his studio, just me and him, and he was working on a new record.

This was in '77, and of course he'd been around forever at that point, they were from the '50s and the '60s. And I'll never forget, he got a six-pack of Miller Lite, and, you know, I'm a Bud Light guy.

Indy: Like all the Boxmasters.

BBT: That's right, that's our deal. But he said, "Let's go take a drive around Nashville. I've got a car out here." And we went outside, and there's this old Cadillac limousine. And he drove it. I thought he had a driver. But he and I just took the six-pack between us and we drove all over Nashville and he told me the history of that town and stuff that I would never know, what it was like coming up there with Loretta Lynn and all these people, and he just talked to me about songwriting.

And he wrote me a letter, a little later, in I think '79, maybe. I've got this letter from Teddy that's up framed in our studio. He's the guy that told me that I should go by my full name, if I ever got firmly rooted in the entertainment business. If I were going to California to make it, or Nashville or wherever, I should call myself Billy Bob. He said people will remember that. And he wrote that in the letter. Because I was always just Billy to people. I mean, that was my real name, Billy Bob, but I didn't use it back home, it's kind of like a cartoon, you know what I'm saying? Nobody's really named that, that's only in movies.

Indy: On the disc of originals, there's one particular lyric, let's see, "You're one of those horrible bitches that ..."

BBT: "... eats whatever gets in its way."

Indy: Right. I won't even ask who that was about. But what happened with whoever that person was to inspire such venom?

BBT: Well, the whole original side of the record is really about the lower-middle-class lifestyle. You know, all those songs are what I grew up in. And that's the only song that's about something in my more recent life. And it's not about a girl, it's about a guy. I wrote it where it sounds like it's a guy who's been screwed over by this girl. But I didn't really want to hit the nail on the head with this guy. It was a business thing. And so it was like, wow, people like this actually exist.

Indy: Is it [producer] Harvey Weinstein?

BBT: Uh, well, no, no. But you know, it's in that world, anyway.

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Indy: Someone just as good?

BBT: Right. But no, this is somebody else. But the thing is, it was also about this girl once I had it written, I thought, this so applies to this other situation too. It's one of those things where it's just something's in your subconscious, and it just kind of comes out and then you realize, well, this could be two or three different people. But I thought why not have a song that just cusses somebody out? Because normally you don't do that. You try to be poetic and kind of put the blame on yourself a little bit.

But it's like, you know what, there wasn't any in this case. So I'm just going to say it. And then once I'd written the two verses and the chorus, I thought, it's only a minute and a half long, maybe I should, you know, finish this up. I thought, no, I've said everything I need to say.

Indy: What about "I'm Watching the Game"?

BBT: Oh yeah, I'm a baseball freak. I'm a [St. Louis] Cardinal fan. I mean, from the time I was born. I'm friends with those guys.

Indy: You're friends with the Cardinals?

BBT: Oh, big time. I'm sort of to the Cardinals what [Jack] Nicholson is to the Lakers. I'm friends with Tony La Russa and all those guys. And see, a couple of my buddies in the Cardinals got traded, which really sucks.

Indy: There's something about that in the song, right?

BBT: Oh, about "that bastard that was traded from the A's"? No, I just made that up because it rhymed. But I'm good friends with Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein, and both of those guys went away. You know, Eckstein's in Toronto now, and Edmonds, believe it or not, is with my arch enemy, the Cubs. I have a hard time with Jimmy being over at the Cubs.

Indy: Although the music's pretty upbeat, there is this undercurrent of regret pretty much throughout the album. I know a friend of yours struggled with cancer, which inspired the song "20 Years Ago" and its really poignant chorus. ["I'd give anything for 20 years ago / And what I know today about sayin' no / I'd give anything for 20 years ago / I'd never live the dreams that made this nightmare grow."] What's the deal with the upbeat music and downbeat lyrics?

BBT: Well, it's a thing that, like in the old folk music and hillbilly music, there were some really mournful sounding songs, but they also had songs that had like banjos and mandolins, that were just moving along at a clip, you know, at breakneck speed, singing about the most awful shit, like murder and all kinds off stuff. And so, we naturally play that way when we play this music, to start with, and also I've just always loved the juxtaposition of sad lyrics or heavy lyrics or nasty lyrics against a real peppy, upbeat kind of song. It just appeals to me.

Plus, I write lyrics like that naturally, just like when I write movies. I mean, that's the same writer writing these lyrics that wrote anything I've done. And so it's kind of like the lyrics are just that way, but the intention of the band was to play loud-ass hillbilly music. So we just had to do it, and it just happened to work for us.

"Twenty Years Ago" was inspired by, it was really written for, my friend Stephen Bruton, an Austin musician who's a great songwriter, musician and guitar player, and he got throat cancer, and he's cancer-free now. But it also happened to a lot of my other friends. John Prine, who had throat cancer and he's over it. But then I lost some friends to it also, like Jim Varney and other people. And my dad died with it.

I originally called the song, it was originally titled "Cancer," and I thought well, you know, that might be a little heavy for some of the folks. I don't know, maybe Slipknot could do a song called "Cancer" which, by the way, is one of my son's favorite bands.

Indy: So when you tour, you do a Boxmasters set and then do a set based on your solo albums afterward.

BBT: That's exactly what we do.

Indy: At what point do you think you'll have had enough time pass to play the song "Angelina" again?

BBT: Well, we're not opposed to playing "Angelina," actually. It has nothing to do with me not wanting to play it because of the emotional thing, and the guys in the band beg me to play it all the time.

Indy: Yeah, I kind of thought of it as your "Abilene," the Dave Alvin song.

BBT: Right, exactly, That's right. The reason we don't play it live, usually, is because when you put a set list together, it has a certain flow to it. And "Angelina," we find that midtempo songs are the ones where people go to the bathroom and pee. Or go order a beer.

Like, you can play really moody, slow songs, or blazing fast ones, you know, or pretty peppy songs, but you get into those midtempo songs, that seems to be where people start to mill around and talk. And that song just happens to be a midtempo song.

Dan Lanois [the famed producer who did the music for Sling Blade] pointed that out to me years ago. He said his midtempo songs never went over, and since then I've talked to so many people who say the same thing. So that's really the only reason. And it's not that we won't play it that's the point, you know. We may just do it sometime you know for the hell of it, just to see if people go pee.

Indy: Was that song about anybody?

BBT: Uh ... nope, just a random person. (Laughs.) No, you know, that song was exactly about the way we met, and what our life was about. Yeah, I mean every word of that song, yeah.

Indy: In the video, you're wearing this Hawaiian shirt that makes you look kind of like an evil Jimmy Buffett.

BBT: Right, exactly!

Indy: But you also look so intense, the way you're staring into the camera or at whomever's standing next to the camera.

BBT: Right.

Indy: It's almost scary ...

click to enlarge In his most outrageous role to date, Thornton plays a - drummer who can not only hit things, but also read and - write.
  • In his most outrageous role to date, Thornton plays a drummer who can not only hit things, but also read and write.

BBT: Well, yeah, it was, uh, you know ... Angie and I were feeling very defiant at the time, because of, you know, us being portrayed as these nutcases in the press all the time. So I probably had a little defiant attitude in it, sure.

Indy: It seems to me that the music and the lyrics on your new CD capture something that Nashville kind of lost. Although there's still a couple of good guys working there, like Al Kooper and Big Al from NRBQ.

BBT: Yeah, but I'm not sure any more, to tell you the truth. I know the sound that comes out of there now, I'm not real fond of it. We've talked about maybe doing a video that has every cliche you see in the country music videos, where it's like, you know, the Boxmasters are all standing in their suits in a house and we see the woman pulling away with the kid in the pickup truck, tears rolling down her cheek, and then the next scene is us with the troops, and then you see us with a bunch of hot girls in bikinis in a pool. We'd just have the Boxmasters in their mod suits in the middle of all those cliches, you know, and just see what happens.

Indy: Koko Taylor came through here last week ...

BBT: Oh, wow.

Indy: And she did "Wang Dang Doodle," and for the first time I realized it might have just been their arrangement of it, but I don't think so that it's the same riff as [Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart's] "Willie the Pimp."

BBT: Oh, I can see that. You know, I haven't talked to Don [Van Vliet, Beefheart's real name] in a couple of years, I hear he's not well, and he's not really receiving calls right now. I don't know that for a fact, but that's what I've been told. He and I used to talk on the phone all the time about everything. His mom was from Arkansas, where I'm from. He would tell me stories about a lot of things. And of course, he was one of my heroes growing up and I just loved being able to talk to him.

Indy: An old housemate of mine used to play in his band, and when he was a teenager living in, I think it was Van Nuys, Beefheart lived down the street and he used to hang out there. And a relatively young Tom Waits would always hang out there as well. He said that Waits would always be imitating him so much that Beefheart took him aside at some point and said, "Tom, you gotta stop trying to be me and start being yourself." Of course, it took about five albums before Waits started sounding like Beefheart again.

BBT: Well, it's astounding how much Don sounds like Howlin' Wolf.

Indy: Is that true?

BBT: OK, well here's the thing: Don's whole bag is about Howlin' Wolf. You should go check out some of the early Howlin' Wolf stuff. Because I'm telling you, you'll so get Don's vocal approach, it's the same thing. So in essence, Howlin' Wolf could have called Don aside, you know, and told him, "You should start being yourself."

I listened to Beefheart for years and years; I still do from time to time. But I was really heavily into early Mothers [of Invention, Frank Zappa's band], you know, those first few records. Matter of fact, when I wrote Sling Blade, I would put headphones on and I would listen to Burnt Weeny Sandwich. And that's what I wrote that whole script to, was Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Not many people know that.

Indy: Sling Blade was so great, and you also directed the Cormac McCarthy movie, All the Pretty Horses, although I understand that the cut wasn't yours. Any chance of you going back behind the camera?

BBT: I am going to, and I'll do it sometime in the next couple of years. There's two things that I want to direct.

Indy: What sorts of things are they?

BBT: One's based on the book, Citizen Vance, by Jess Walter, and the other is based on a true story about Floyd Collins, the guy who was trapped in a cave back in 1925 that became, like, the biggest media event of the time. I want to make it not as a thing about the media so much as about human nature, which is that we like to watch other people's troubles for our own entertainment. So I'm making it really basically because of what reality television has done to us.

Indy: Since, in addition to being a frontman, you're also a drummer, do you prefer Dave Clark or Ringo? Or Paul McCartney?

BBT: Yeah, exactly. I was probably more of a Ringo guy. I always liked the way he looked when he played. He was my first drummer hero too, I mean, so that probably has a lot to do with it. But Ringo was a lot better drummer than people give him credit for. I mean, he did some stuff I was talking to Frank Beard from ZZ Top [whom Thornton first met while playing in a Top cover band] the other night, and Frank said, man, some of that stuff Ringo did, he said, I've never quite figured it out. And then of course, like you say, McCartney plays pretty well.

You know, I play all the stuff on the record. I do all the drums and percussion on the record, and all the high harmonies and that kind of stuff. But when we play live, we have eight of us.

Indy: You don't want to look like Don Henley?

BBT: Yeah, I just can't resolve myself to do that. The only guy who looked cool doing it was [the Band's] Levon Helm. And if I was that cool-looking, sitting back there singing lead and playing drums, I'd probably do it.

Indy: Speaking of which, you were a roadie for Lighthouse, who actually did a decent version of the Band's "Chest Fever," and also for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others. I also heard you were a fan of Gentle Giant. Did you ever hear their song about roadies?

BBT: Oh yeah, I remember it. And I actually get this, Bill I actually saw Gentle Giant open a show in Little Rock back in the '70s, and Gentle Giant was the opening band, and then the Strawbs, and then the headliner was Ten Years After. It was like you had these two really tight-ass, art-rock bands, you know, and then Ten Years After came out and just did "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" for like an hour and 10 minutes. It was a great show. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

But actually the thing about me being a roadie for all those people is a little misleading, because I wasn't their roadie. I worked for a sound company, so I was the grunt kid, you know, the little, skinny, long-haired kid who wrapped microphones and loaded trucks and drove all night for the sound company. But we worked for all those people. And other people that you'll know because, you know, obviously you know everything I did shows with Brewer and Shipley. And do you remember B.W. Stevenson?

Indy: No, I don't.

BBT: The guy who did "My Maria"? A lot of people think it's Brooks and Dunn, but it was B.W. Stevenson way back. And gosh, Dr. Hook, Pure Prairie League, oh yeah, a lot of 'em. It was a great education for me. Even though it was hard and I got paid nothing, it was so important to me.

Indy: So you had to haul some pretty big bass cabinets back in those days?

BBT: Oh yeah.

Indy: It's interesting that you still wanted to stay with it, well, not necessarily with being a roadie. But it didn't turn you off from music completely. Or at least destroy your back.

BBT: Well, it might have done that. You should see me walk.

bill@csindy.com

  • For Thornton, talking about music comes in a close second to playing it.

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