Billy Bob Thornton is the only Academy Award winner whose credits include a stint in the Wagonmasters, the late Porter Wagoner’s band. Granted, it was a one-night tenure that included only three songs, but the mere fact he received an invitation to play drums that night is an indication of Marty Stuart’s confidence in Thornton’s musical abilities.
Thornton gets satisfaction from the encouragement he’s received from songwriters and musicians such as Stuart and Kris Kristofferson. Like other actors who write and record music, he has to work harder to gain respect as a musician, although it’s gotten progressively easier through the years following the release of four solo albums and his latest project with the band, the Boxmasters.
Although the band’s self-titled album has a strong influence of the British Invasion music of the ’60s, it’s balanced by an equal dose of classic country sounds of the same era. The Boxmasters is a two-CD set — with one disc consisting of original material and another featuring sometimes eclectic takes on familiar songs ranging from Mel Tillis’ “Sawmill” and the traditional ballad, “Knoxville Girl,” to the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.”
Thornton’s stylistic diversity is a direct result of growing up in rural Arkansas during the ’60s.
“I grew up listening to a lot of Elvis … all the Sun Records stuff — Charlie Rich and Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins,” he told CMT.com during a phone interview from his California home. “My uncle — my mom’s brother — was a guitar player in a country band. Ultimately, I played drums in their country band. I listened to a lot of Ray Price and Jim Reeves and Webb Pierce and Hank Williams.
“When the Beatles came on TV, I was 9. And I’ll never forget lying on my stomach on the floor of that creepy little duplex we lived in — and me and my brothers looking up at that black-and-white Zenith television set and seeing the Beatles. That’s really what made me want to play music — when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“But the first record my mother let me have was the soundtrack to Elvis’ King Creole. To this day, ‘King Creole’ is still my favorite Elvis song. The first record I bought was the 45 of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ That’s why we put it on the Boxmasters record.”
With English bands borrowing heavily from the American rock, country and R&B that originated in the South, Thornton is convinced that people in the South somehow mentally processed the British Invasion differently than those in other regions of the U.S.
“There’s no question about it,” he said. “I think we still heard ourselves in there. When we first started this Boxmasters project after me just doing solo records all these years, it was really because I had never quite found my sound. Because I loved everything so much — from the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart to Cream and Traffic and then the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers and then back to Elvis, Cash, Merle and all those people — I didn’t have cohesive solo records because I liked so many things. So the first thing we cut for the Boxmasters record is ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ by [British pop duo] Chad & Jeremy. I told thought, ‘If you listen to this song and take out the English vocals, it’s really a hillbilly song.’”
Thornton’s involvement with music accelerated after graduating from high school when he traveled extensively for a production company that provided sound equipment for major touring acts.
“I worked with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Johnny Paycheck, the Statler Brothers, Brewer & Shipley, Dr. Hook, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band … a lot of different people,” he said. “But I was with the sound company. I was this just this little skinny-ass kid who was wrapping microphone cords, loading trucks, driving all night and eating cheap hamburgers. When you were a roadie back then, it was because you loved it, and you loved being around it. We didn’t get paid anything, the conditions were not always great, and it was hard work. If you weigh 140 pounds and you’re trying to lift all of that stuff, you’ve gotta love it.”
He eventually moved to Los Angeles when one of his buddies, aspiring novelist Tom Epperson, wanted to become a screenwriter. Thornton headed west with him to pursue a musical career, but things took an unexpected turn. Although he had taken drama classes in high school, he didn’t intend to become a professional actor.
“Movies weren’t a big part of my life growing up,” he said. “When we got to L.A. … I discovered it’s not that easy to get into a band in L.A. Everybody was paying to play at the Whisky. It just wasn’t easy.
“I got discovered in this theater group I joined — discovered in a small way. I’d get a part on Matlock or Divorce Court or whatever it was. I just had to go with how I was surviving. That was the only way I could make any money. Music had to take a backseat. The next thing you know, we had made One False Move, and Tom and I got a three-picture deal with Disney to write screenplays for them. That took up all the time, just trying to keep our head above water. … When Sling Blade happened, all of a sudden, I was a movie star. It was like, ‘Shit, I didn’t plan on this.’ I had no idea that movie would be that big.”
Thornton’s acting career flourished following Sling Blade, and he won an Oscar in 1997 for the screenplay. He says there’s a correlation between Sling Blade and the songs he has written for the Boxmasters.
“If you look at the screenplay for Sling Blade, and then read the lyrics to some of those songs, you can tell it’s the same writer,” he said. “It’s not any different really. It’s a record about the lower, middle-class lifestyle — which is what I grew up in.”
As a musician, he has seen his fan base grow — and change — since Stuart produced his 2001 album, Private Radio. Thornton openly acknowledges that many people viewed him as a novelty during his tours to promote that album.
“When I had Private Radio out, I think probably 90 percent of the audience was there just to see the monkey in the cage,” he admitted. “On the first couple of records, we had a lot of that. Now that I’ve had four solo records out and now the Boxmasters album, we’re starting to build a real following. Within music circles, I’ve become pretty accepted now.”
His friendship with Stuart has remained strong, prompting the invitation to back Wagoner in February 2007 when the Hall of Fame member opened a show for alt-country artist Neko Case at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood.
“Marty called me and said, ‘Just bring a snare drum and a cymbal. That’s all you need, but how would you feel about being a Wagonmaster for a night?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? It would be the honor of my life.’ Marty had just finished that record [Wagonmaster] with Porter. He said, ‘I want to get me and Porter and you — and Dwight Yoakam on bass. I said, ‘Dwight’s not really a bass player.’ He goes, ‘I know. It won’t matter. It will be fun.’”
Before the show, Boxmasters member J.D. Andrew took several photographs of Thornton with Wagoner, Stuart and Yoakam.
“I’ve got to tell you, those pictures, when I look at them, I still get a chill down my spine,” Thornton said. “For one night, I was the drummer in the Wagonmasters. I’ll never forget that for as long as I’ll live.”
The Boxmasters have been promoting their album on a national tour that ends this week with a Friday night (Sept. 5) show at the Joint, a venue in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, and a Saturday (Sept. 7) stop at the House of Blues in L.A.
Thornton and his bandmates recently completed a holiday CD, and they’ve already begun work on another album.
“We did a bunch of traditional Christmas songs, but we did them in the style of the Boxmasters,” Thornton said. “We just hillbillied them up, did kind of rockabilly versions of them. And then we wrote three new Christmas songs, and they’re kind of irreverent.” With a laugh, he adds, “They’re not really happy, fuzzy Christmas songs.”