Big Daddy

A fruitful partnership with auteur du jour Billy Bob Thornton could make Marty Stuart Hollywood's hottest properties

This appeared in Country Music Magazine - October/November 1999

Marty Stuart didn't know who Billy Bob Thornton was when he attended the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. This winter, though, Miramax will release their first collaboration, Daddy & Them, a movie that offers a snapshot of the life of a dysfunctional Arkansas family. Thornton directs and stars in the picture. Stuart wrote its musical score.

"I went out to Sundance in '96 just to poke around, and there was a film on the street that year called Sling Blade," recalls Stuart, referring to Thornton's directorial debut. "I tried to get in to see it, but the lines were just too long. It was impossible to get a ticket."

It wasn't until the movie came to Nashville that Stuart and his wife, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, finally saw Sling Blade. "We went to a matinee show on the edge of town and I was almost speechless," remembers Stuart. "I loved the film but, more than anything, I loved the heart of the writer.

"I walked away thinking that Billy Bob Thornton was a William Faulkner sort, or a Hemingway, one of the greatest American writers--and, of course, actors and directors--that we have. He's the real deal."

The two southerners--Stuart's from Mississippi, Thornton from Arkansas--met almost by accident. Stuart was in Hollywood talking to director Mike Nichols about playing music for Primary Colors, a movie in which Thornton appeared. The actor was on the set shooting that day and came out to shake Stuart's hand. Thornton, it turned out, was not only a fan of Stuart's music, he had also heard some of the hillbilly rocker's then-unreleased work.

"I had been down to Memphis to record 'The Pilgrim,' the title song from my new album," explains Stuart. "The people at Sun Records had kept a copy and, when Billy Bob was down there, they played it for him. When we met in L.A., he said, 'I heard that song in Memphis and I thought we should do something together at some point.' And I'm thinking, Well, maybe that's just Hollywood talk, but I really hope he means it."

Thornton meant it all right. Shortly afterward, he phoned Stuart to offer him a part in Daddy & Them. "I said, 'I can't do that, I don't have time,' " recalls Stuart. " 'Then let's make some music,' Billy Bob said. So I went down to Arkansas where they were filming and talked to Billy Bob and came back to Nashville and made some demos, and it all worked.

Thornton apparently makes most decisions the way he made the one about working with Stuart--by instinct. "You know how it is when you meet somebody and you go, 'Okay, this is my kinda guy here,' " says Thornton, speaking by phone from near Santa Fe, where he's shooting his next movie, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel All the Pretty Horses. "I just knew Marty was the guy. And it had nothing to do with him being a country singer. It was just about his soul, the feel that he has; I knew he would get Daddy & Them."

According to Stuart, Thornton, who had gigged in bands in and around Arkansas before he made it as an actor in Hollywood, has an equally deep grasp of music. "Billy Bob is an incredible music guy," Stuart says. "He's one of those writer-directors who write their scenes with music playing in the background. A lot of directors are just totally visual people--they don't have any feeling for music. But Billy Bob is a musician's dream when it comes to editing a film because he knows exactly what he wants to do."

"I don't think music should be an interference in a movie," Thornton explains. "At the same time, I don't think it should be meaningless background. I also don't think it should point out moments for you. The scene and the music should be one thing, although that doesn't always mean that the music has to go along with the scene in the traditional way.

"The music that Marty did for Daddy & Them is still country, but it's a little riskier. It's not like a score in the traditional sense. Instead of scoring specific moments in the movie, it's more like just jamming to a scene."

Stuart agrees. "It couldn't have been a freer process," he says. "When you're making music for movies, all you have to do is pay attention to what's happening on the screen and respond to it. A lot of times with records, you have these moments to carve out that perfect hit sound with all kinds of hooks. But with movies, you can just kind of relax and let the feeling flow. The story's already told, so you can just let the music do what it will."

The story of Daddy & Them could hardly be more indelible. Set near Little Rock, the plot finds a large, deeply troubled family coming together around a tragedy. John Prine, Jim Varney and Thornton play the parts of the brothers. Andy Griffith is the daddy. Laura Dern and her mother, Diane Ladd, have major roles as well, as do Ben Affleck, Kelly Preston and Jamie Lee Curtis. Everyone always has a drink in his hand.

Stuart likens the state of affairs to going home for a not-so-happy holiday. "You're inside of this incredibly crazy scene," he says. "Everybody's drunk out of their gourds--you just know something's gonna blow up. And a lot does blow up. What Billy Bob does, though is take you through this craziness and, all of a sudden, he takes a left turn on you and shows you what's really inside these people instead of what's on the surface. He tears your heart completely out.

"It reminds me of my family and a whole bunch of my friends," Stuart continues. "I guarantee you, anybody that watches this film is gonna see someone they know in there."

The story that Stuart tells with his kaleidoscopic new album, The Pilgrim, cuts just as close to the bone. Based on events that took place in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where Stuart grew up, the narrative centers around a man who falls in love with a woman that he didn't know was married. When the woman's tightly wound husband discovers that his wife has fallen for another guy, he confronts the couple with a gun, only to turn the weapon on himself.

Devastated at this senseless death, the Pilgrim and the widow, Rita, go their separate ways. The Pilgrim embarks on a life of hoboing and drinking until, on the verge of bottoming out, he has an epiphany, experiences God's forgiveness and resolves to return home, find Rita and pick up their life together, which he does.

Possessed of an epic-like grandeur, The Pilgrim feels very much like a career album for Stuart. Encompassing everything from old-time music and bluegrass to honky tonk and Stuart's patented "hillbilly rock," it also fairly sums up a century's worth of commercial country music.

The host of legends who appear on the recording, from bluegrass patriarchs Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs to country giants George Jones and Johnny Cash, merely confirms this feeling. And yet unlike most star cameos, none of the performances here seems gratuitous. Ralph Stanley, for example, sounds like the mountain prophet that he is; Cash's craggy baritone is perfect as the voice of God.

"It wasn't something that I consciously planned," says Stuart, referring to having the likes of Jones, Cash and Stanley sing on the album. "I simply cast the voices and personalities I thought would get the point across and fit the kind of record The Pilgrim is."

As Stuart's comments--and the cinematic sweep of this album--suggest, The Pilgrim could very well find its way to the big screen. Thornton certainly thinks so. "Marty and I have actually talked about it," he says. "I see a movie very clearly in it. It reminds me a little of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger."

Stuart is excited at the prospect of The Pilgrim becoming a movie, especially if it means working with Thornton again. "Billy Bob was the first person outside my camp that I felt comfortable enough to let have a tape of the record," he says. "After he took it and lived with it, he called me back and said, 'This thing is as hot as a firecracker. I love it.' And he told me the whole screenplay he had in his head for it. So apparently, he's thinking in those terms, which is fine with me."

None of which is surprising given Thornton's belief that, even more than other musical genres, country music lends itself to motion pictures. "Country music songs are stories," he observes. "They also have an underlying sadness or soul that I think great movies have. If you really think about it, country music is the soundtrack to people's lives."

Written by Bill Friskics-Warren

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