Mod Billy | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mod Billy

Photo by Courtesy Rogers & Cowan

Although perhaps best known for his acting, Academy Award-winning screenwriter, director and acclaimed actor Billy Bob Thornton has been a singer-songwriter for more than 30 years.

Thornton started his first band after his mother, Virginia, gave him a drum kit for his ninth birthday. The band's first gig was playing "The Ballad of The Green Berets" for the PTA. Thornton recorded his first album with his group Hot Lanta in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 1974, long before the world was introduced to Karl Childers in "Sling Blade" or the off-color ranting of Bad Santa.

Thornton is an accomplished musician, having recorded four solo albums: "Private Radio" (2001), "The Edge of the World" (2003), "Hobo" (2005), and "Beautiful Door" (2007). Thornton and Grammy-winning producer and guitarist J.D. Andrew formed the Boxmasters in 2007 after both worked on "Beautiful Door." Thornton and the Boxmasters are currently touring in support of their self-titled boxed set debut on Vanguard records.

The Boxmasters combine their love of the Beatles and other British Invasion acts with their passion for traditional country groups like Buck Owens, and blend it into a rollicking blend of hillbilly rock 'n' roll. Thornton was in the middle of filming "Manure," a comedy about a manure salesman in 1960s heartland America, when he took a phone interview with the Jackson Free Press.

Hello? How are you?
Hey. I'm happy to talk to you. We don't normally play in Jackson. I haven't played in Jackson since I was in my 20s. I'm so looking forward to it because that was my territory. I was raised down in Arkansas there you know, and we used to come over there and go to Greenville. My mom used to live in Greenville. That would have been in the mid '70s. She lived in Greenville for, I guess, about three years, maybe. My stepdad was a doctor, and he was transferred down there. He got a job … giving people exams for the blood banks and stuff.

Have you actually played in Jackson before?
When I was a kid, we played in Jackson a few times. I can't remember where now. It's been so long ago, but we would play there and Greenville, too, and down in Biloxi, so we played around Mississippi, but I grew up probably two-and-a-half/three hours from Mississippi.

Please describe the Boxmasters' sound for our readers who are new to your music.
We call it "mod-billy" because the band is based on our love of the Beatles, the British invasion and Michael Nesmith and the Monkees, as well as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band combined with hillbilly music. So it was our way to be the Beatles and Buck Owens all at once. Our records have a '60s sound to 'em, but it's hillbilly music. Loud hillbilly music.

You played drums on the Boxmasters' album. Although you'll be filling the role of lead singer at Hal & Mal's most of the night, will you get to take a turn on the drums at all?
Every now and then when we do an encore, I'll play drums. If we play an instrumental, sometimes I'll play drums. I have to be out front when we're playing so we have a live drummer named Mike Bruce, who's actually from Alabama and when we play live, there's eight of us. On the record, there's three of us. Yeah, we make a lot of noise on the record, so we've gotta take enough people to make the same noise.

What other instruments do you play?
A little bit of everything. I'm predominately a drummer and a singer. But I play guitar well enough to write my songs on it. I usually write my songs on an acoustic guitar, and the only thing I don't play—I mean I can pick around on one—but I don't play piano.

Were you self-taught, or did you take lessons?
Oh, totally self-taught. There was a band in our town called the Yardleys. They called themselves the Yardleys because that was during the British Invasion, and that sounded English. They were like the older guys. When they were seniors in high school, I was in junior high. I used to go over and stand in the yard and watch them practice through the window. Every now and then, they'd let me come in. Their drummer was a guy named Bucky Griggs, and he let me sit down behind his drum kit. It was the first time I had ever been behind a set of Ludwig drums. They're just amazing real drums, because my drums were those things we got through Sears. And Bucky taught me a little bit. But, for the most part, I was self-taught.

What albums will you and the Boxmasters be listening to on the tour bus? What do you plan to take with you?
We'll take Allman Brothers "Live at the Fillmore East," probably Traffic "On the Road," as well as "(The) Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," We'll take "Disraeli Gears" by Cream, and we'll take a bunch of Merle Haggard, and (Johnny) Cash and the Wilburn Brothers—and definitely the (Nitty Gritty) Dirt Band and (Michael) Nesmith. We also listen to a lot of (Captain) Beefheart and the Mothers of Invention, as well as Derek Trucks. The guys in the band are real big fans of Derek.

What are some of your favorite new artists?
Somebody asked me that recently, and I was like, "Cake," and they came out in like '88 or something. I respect Jack White (of the White Stripes) a lot because he knows the history of music. Oh gosh, you know to tell you the truth, I don't listen to much music these days because we're always recording. When we're recording, I like to kind of not listen to other music because it kind of influences you and because we don't want to be influenced … right now other than by the people we started out being influenced by.

Does your approach to songwriting differ from the way you tackle screenwriting?
Well, really, it's the same writer; it's the same mind, so the only difference is you have to tell a story in three and a half minutes instead of a 110 pages. So, it's different in that sense, but just like with screenwriting, I write things pretty quickly. If they don't come quickly, I don't write 'em at all, because I'm not ... I was never a good construction artist. I'm not good at writing. (Pauses) I'm not good at thinking. What I'm trying to say is if it's not stream of consciousness, I can't do it.

It's going to be hot as Hades in Jackson, Miss., on July 30. Will y'all still sport your classic Boxmasters' outfits complete with Beatles boots and the '60s mod suits? You might want to arrange for them to bring in some big fans and blocks of ice.
(Laughing) Well, I know how hot it is down there and how humid, too, but we will be wearing the full-on Beatles suits with the Beatles boots and the whole thing. We wear the whole rig. Now in the second show, just so you know, it's probably important for people to know this, that we do my solo show also. So if it says the show's at 9 p.m., then the opening act is the Boxmasters. So, the Boxmasters come out and play, and then we're off for about 20 minutes, and then we come back and do the solo show. The solo show is a little bit, it's a little heavier. You know it's a big rock show. Sometimes people won't come for the opening act, but in this case, we are the opening act, so you might want to get there on time.

Now when you do the solo show, will you do some stuff from your earlier (solo) albums?
Yes, that's what we do. Yeah, we'll do some stuff from "Private Radio," a lot from "Edge of the World." I don't know that we do anything from "Hobo" because that stuff's so moody, you know? ... We do a couple of songs from "Beautiful Door." We do "Hope for Glory." We'll probably either do "Carnival Girl" or "Hearts Like Mine," and from "Edge of the World" we do "Island Avenue" and "Emily" and "Desperate One," and we do "Walk of Shame" from "Private Radio."

I wish you'd do "Forever" for me, but that's just a personal request.
I know. "Forever" is real hard to do live. You know why, because that was ad-libbed. Marty Stuart and I wrote words for it, but we played it at the same time, you know what I mean? It's kind of hard for the band to know where I'm gonna be in the story. So it's kind of tough. I would love to do that live, though. We used to do "Starlight Lounge," but we don't have a girl in the band cause Mica (Roberts) is not with us anymore, and it would be pretty strange for me to sing a duet about a guy and a girl with one of the guys in the band, so we won't do that anymore.

Your late brother, Jimmy Don, wrote "Emily" and "Island Avenue." Is there any of his other songs that you would like to record?
He wrote a song called "Pretoria Burning," which is about South Africa and everything that goes on over there. I don't know exactly how relevant it is right now, but it was a great song, and he wrote a couple of other songs that … here's the thing: I don't know if I would want to do this because it might seem like a vanity thing, but he wrote a song for me once. Before he died, he wrote 10 songs for the 10 people he loved the most. One of the songs is called "Billy Bob's Magic Kingdom," and it's all about our childhood. The song is so "inside" because all of the references are about things that only he and I knew about, right? But, it's a beautiful song, and I may record it some day just for my mom. I'm not sure … But if we play a song, unless you're Jerry Lee Lewis—you know how Jerry Lee Lewis has his name in every song (laughs) so I don't want to do that—but that's a song that I would like to cut at some point, just to say I did it.

Your mom, Virginia, is a psychic who predicted that you would one day win an Oscar. Does she often share her visions about your future with you? If so, what is her most recent revelation?
Well you know Mom doesn't read for the family too much because she probably ... You don't wanna know. I mean any predictions recently? I can't think of any other than she asked me the other day about my girlfriend Connie's sister, Carrie, about probably three or four days ago. She said, "Is Carrie feeling OK?" And I said, "Yeah, I think so. Why?" And she said, "I don't know, I just saw a little something about Carrie, might be a little health problem." And, sure enough, she talked to Connie last night, and Connie told her that Carrie had just sprained her ankle really bad. I mean just little stuff like that, you know? She'll bring it up from time to time, but no major predictions lately about the career or anything like that.

How do you overcome the fact that your pop-culture persona often overshadows your musical accomplishments with the general public?
Well, you know it's funny. We don't get that as much any more because this being the fifth album including the solo records, people see we're sticking around and we don't get that as much anymore like we did. Particularly when I was with Angelina (Jolie), I was in that world a lot more, you know what I mean? But, these days we have a real good cult following for our music. Plus, I'm in a lot of the music magazines and a lot of musicians want to write songs with me and talk about it and do interviews and stuff, so we've kind of gotten past that a little bit, which is really good for me. That's also the good part of being with a band as opposed to being a solo artist, too. Now I feel like I'm just part of a band, and that takes away a lot of that.

How do you decide how much time to devote to your music versus working on movies? Does this happen organically, or is there a method to your choices on how to focus your artistic energies?
Well, we manage to do it pretty easily. It seems like I'm real busy, but we just make sure that we have time to do everything we want to do. Since the studio's there in the basement, recording is pretty easy. A lot of times if I'm working on a movie, we'll record that night after I've worked all day. What I try to do is to schedule every year, one tour, one record, and a big movie and a small movie. And it's worked out pretty good the last three or four years. We haven't really run into any trouble so far with not having time to do one thing or the other although right now I'm working on this movie, "Manure," with the Polish brothers—you know the people that did "The Astronaut Farmer"—and that's the set I'm on today. In the meantime, the label, Vanguard, wanted a Christmas record from the Boxmasters, so I've been recording a Christmas record at night, and working on the set in the day. As we draw closer to the end of the movie, we're working more hours trying to fit everything in so there have been nights when I only got two or three hours of sleep because I had to go in and cut a Christmas song. There will be three original Christmas songs on the record and the rest of them are fairly traditional. You know, "Silver Bells," and things like that, but they're done "Boxmasters-style."

OK, two questions. Number one: How do you do a Christmas album in June? Number two: "Bad Santa" does Christmas?
(Laughing) I'll tell you the truth, the original Christmas songs on here are kind of "Bad Santa-like." There is one called "Slower than Christmas," which is very "Bad Santa"-like. It's pretty funny. And, yeah, to record a Christmas album in June … see, I'm a Christmas fan. I love Christmas, and we keep a Christmas tree up in the house all year long— an artificial one, you know? I play Christmas music year-round on the stereo and everything, and for anybody who hasn't heard The Ventures' Christmas album from the '60s, that's one of the best Christmas records you'll ever hear. And I listen to a lot of Dean Martin and Sinatra and people like that.

Do you have Christmas decorations down in the Cave (Thornton's home-based recording studio)?
We do. We've got some Charlie Brown cartoon character dolls in the studio, and we actually have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. You can buy 'em at—I think it's like Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma, or one of those kind of stores—but Connie got a couple of them for the house, and they're just like Charlie Brown's tree in the TV show. We've got one of those in the studio.

I lost my best friend, Stella, to breast cancer in 2006. One of the things that helped me navigate the grief I experienced during her fight with cancer was listening to Warren Zevon's "The Wind" religiously. I appreciated how Zevon faced death and how you and his other friends supported him on his journey. You and Zevon recorded his cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for his Grammy-winning album "The Wind" in The Cave, your home-based recording studio. Would you tell me about that experience?
That was something else. Warren and I had known each other since the late '80s, I guess right around the time that (my brother) Jimmy died, and Warren came to the house a lot in his last few months. Then I had to go away and make "The Alamo." I would talk to him on the phone until he got to where he couldn't really talk on the phone anymore. We made "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which is a beautiful song. One of my favorite movies is "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." When that song is playing it's that scene with Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens right before he dies. That song has always meant a lot to me. To hear Dylan sing it obviously is amazing, but to hear a guy sing it who's your friend, who actually is dying was pretty chilling. As far as I remember, that was me and John Waite, Tommy Shaw and Brad Davis singing background vocals on that in the studio. It was a pretty special night. Yeah, Warren was an amazing guy and a big influence on me and a lot of other people as songwriters because Warren could make you laugh and cry at the same time.

I was actually blessed to be on the front row in Florence, Ala., recently for the "Sling Blade" Reunion at the George Lindsay Film Festival.
Oh, my goodness. Wasn't that something? That was really something else, I'll tell you. I got a chill on that one. You know, you talked about losing your friend to cancer, there's a song on the Boxmasters' record called "Twenty Years Ago," and you know that song is about cancer; the original title of the song was "Cancer." That song—if you listen to it again, listen to the words. You'll see. Unless somebody knows that's what it was about, they might not necessarily be keen to it, but if you knew that's what it's about, the words will make complete sense to you about your friend. The song is inspired by all my friends who have had it, who we lost—Jim Varney and the ones who are still here like John Prine—but the song was really written for and specifically inspired by Stephen Bruton. Stephen Bruton's an Austin musician who's a great guy and who toured with us in 2003, I think it was. Stephen makes his own records. You should check him out because you'll love his music. Stephen got throat cancer last year and he survived it. He's totally cancer-free.

One of my all-time favorite stories of yours is about when you went to eat dinner with Johnny and June Carter Cash. Mrs. Cash had fixed you an amazing southern meal and despite being allergic to just about everything there, you ate it all out of respect. What are your favorite southern foods that you can eat?
Ones that I can eat? Fried okra. That would be probably at the top of the list. I can eat any vegetable, and I can eat any kind of meat. All I can't have is dairy and wheat. The thing that I miss the most would probably be biscuits and gravy. I discovered my allergy to those things later in life, and I really miss that. Fried okra. I also miss red velvet cake and German chocolate cake.

And here it is your lunch hour! I didn't mean to set you off into a food craving.
Aw, that's Okay. Yep, I'd say fried okra is at the top of the list. I also like—a lot of people don't even know what this is, but we used to eat fried squash all the time, and that's one of my favorite things.

You grew up in Arkansas, but have lived in L.A. for what seems like forever. What do you miss most about the South, and do you think you'll ever move back—even for part of the year?
You know I've thought about living back there someday. I mean I'm sure I'll retire there, whenever that happens. What I miss the most is probably thunderstorms. You know, I miss seasons, because we don't really have them out here. When it rains out here—if it sprinkles out here, they call it a thunderstorm. It's like, "you have no idea what a thunderstorm is." Yeah, I'd say thunderstorms are probably the main thing I miss.

Do you sing to your daughter Bella? If so, what are her favorite songs?
I sing "House at Pooh Corner" to her. I sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She loves the "Happy Birthday Song." Her favorite song on the Boxmasters' record—which she actually knows the words to—which I'm not sure how I ought to think about this, but she loves "She's Looking Better By The Minute." I mean she loves that song. She can sing the first verse and chorus without even being prompted. Oh, and I sing, "Summertime." Remember that old song, "Summertime"? I sing that to her sometimes.

According to your Web site, at last count you had 14 tattoos. Have you gotten any more since the Constance tattoo in 2004?
Naw, that was the last one. On the road this year, everybody in the band is gonna get a Boxmasters tattoo, and we're all gonna do it in different cities.

Jackson has some amazing tattoo artists. Would you consider getting some ink when you're in town?
You know what, I might just do that. That's a cool thing to say, because I've never had a tattoo in Mississippi.

Thornton announces that they have called for him back on the set.

One last question, then. You've alluded to struggling with drugs in some of your songs, but you seem to have settled down these days. What are your vices now? Does songwriting help?
Songwriting definitely helps. The only thing I really have these days in terms of habit is I still smoke. I don't know; it's hard to stop. That's the hardest thing in the world to quit, for me. It has so many purposes for you when you are a smoker, you know? There's so many things that you do in your regular life that you just have to have a cigarette for. It's really tough for me to quit. But yeah, in terms of songwriting, yeah, absolutely, I mean I sing about a lot of stuff. I write songs for a lot of stuff that is autobiographical, you know from the old days and it is pretty cathartic.

Fried okra chefs, tattoo artists, die-hard fans and curiosity-seekers alike can all groove to Thornton and the Boxmasters on Wednesday, July 30, at Hal & Mal's at 9 p.m.. Tickets can be purchased at BeBop Record Shop. $23.50 cash, $24.10 credit or debit. (601) 981-5000.

Previous Comments


I think it's pretty cool that Mike Nesmith is one of his influences. I am a fan of his and love it when he sings "Papa Gene's Blues." You can hear Micky Dolenz in the background, and their voices go well together.


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