Billy Bob Thornton

The actor and director talks about the making of his forthcoming debut album, Private Radio

This appeared in The Oxford American - July/August 2001

I met Billy Bob Thornton last year at a Nashville party celebrating the completion of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? We had previously talked on the phone, but this was the first time we had talked in person. He told me he was getting together with some friends to record some songs at Ocean Way Recording, a studio in Nashville, and invited me over.

The next day, I walked into a crowded studio to find Billy Bob and Matt Damon playfully dogging each other's movie work. Suddenly, Billy Bob announced that he was going to play a track that he had just cut with Earl Scruggs that morning. I had no idea what to expect. It was "Ring of Fire," and what came out of the speakers was a version of that song unlike any I'd heard. Instead of a straight country reading of the Cash classic, this was hip-hop influenced, with Earl Scruggs playing a hypnotic banjo line throughout and with Billy Bob Thornton singing smoothly and with passion.

Throughout the night "Ring of Fire" must have played thirty times at death-defying volume while a studio full of people partied. No one ever got tired of it. Soon into the playbacks, I caught myself thinking that this idiosyncratic performance would be a perfect track for this year's Oxford American CD.

A couple of mornings later, I picked Billy Bob up for breakfast. I had on a Yardbirds t-shirt and he came out wearing an Animals t-shirt. This mutual acknowledgment for great British Invasion rock bands set the tone for an insanely passionate conversation on everything from Abba to Frank Zappa. We were practically finishing each other's sentences. When I mentioned a violin solo on "The Little House I Used to Live In," from the Mothers of Invention's album Burnt Weeny Sandwich, he pointed out correctly that the solo began five minutes into the track. At that moment, I think we both realized we were equally afflicted on a rarefied level reserved for sick music geeks. Since then, we've spent hours talking and sharing music.

Billy Bob's forthcoming debut album Private Radio (Lost Highway Records), is the first serious recorded realization of his musical vision. Produced by Marty Stuart, Private Radio covers a lot of emotional and musical ground, alternating brooding narratives with steamy, sensual r&b riffing and ragged country rock. Highlights include the homesick kink of "Forever," the chugging country of "That Mountain," and Thornton's sublime love song to his wife, "Angelina." The reflective solitude of the title track and the transcendent version of the Byrds' "He Was a Friend of Mine," add further spark to a memoralbe first effort.

Oxford American: How did your appearance on Earl Scruggs's album Earl Scruggs and Friends come about?

Billy Bob: I was in Nashville working on my record. Earl and Louise [Scruggs, Earl's wife] came around to say hello, and I played them "I Still Miss Someone," a song I had originally cut for my record but that is not going to be on it now -- I'm going to put it on another one.

Anyway, Earl and Louise just flipped out over it. Then Randy [Scruggs, their son] called me and said, "My dad wants to know if you will be on his record." I said, "Well, yeah. Are you sur he wants me on it?" Randy said, "He loves you." He went ape over your voice, and he wants you to do a Johnny Cash song. He wants to know if you will do 'I Walk the Line' or "Ring of Fire.' " So I called Marty [Stuart] up and said, "Earl wants me to be on his record. What would you do -- 'Ring of Fire' or 'I Walk the Line'?" Marty said, " 'Ring of Fire'." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "I don't even think Cash can sing 'I Walk the Line' anymore." [Laughs] So we did it.

Oxford American: You finished it in less than a day, didn't you?

Billy Bob: I went in at nine o'clock in the morning and knocked it out in probably an hour.

Oxford American: Is there any acting involved in singing? Was there a persons that you needed to get into for your version of "Ring of Fire"?

Billy Bob: Well, let's nine o'clock in the morning that's just how I sound. [Laughs] But yeah, I look at every song like a short story. Definitely on my album, I do. Each song is a story, and if there is a character, then I'm in the character. Just as I do as an actor, I try to be myself within a person in a story: what would I do in that know?

Oxford American: Have you ever thought about acting in or directing a musical?

Billy Bob: I was actually asked if I would like to direct Chicago at one point. I don't know how good I would be, but I like musicals, and I've always been interested in them. It's not out of the question.

Oxford American: What is your favorite one?

Billy Bob: That is tough to say. I don't think any of them stand out. I love Singing in the Rain. And I cry every time I see Paul Robeson sing "Old Man River" in Showboat, when he is on that boat and it is all misty and stuff. Every time he gets to the line "tired of living and scared of dying," I just break apart. And then looking at Ava Gardner's face, watching the boat go away. It's something else!

Oxford American: Is the song "Ring of Fire" a good preview of your upcoming solo album, Private Radio?

Billy Bob: In a way it is. It sounds like me, but the only reason I hesitate is that it has this sort of hip-hop beat, and then it has got the banjo.....and there is nothing that is on my record that is as country as the banjo is on "Ring of Fire" and there is nothing on that record that is as hip-hop as that beat. Somewhere in the middle of all of that is my record. The vocal is pretty indicative of my record, but also I have more up-tempo stuff, where I sing out. So it is kind of a hard question to answer. I'll put it this way: "Ring of Fire" could've been put on my record and it wouldn't have been a surprise or a shock at all.

Oxford American: What prompted your solo album?

Billy Bob: I've been in music all my life, and I always wanted to make a record, and I just now got around to it. I was able to find people who I trusted and who trusted me and who responded to my stuff. I wouldn't want to make it on my "name." I wanted to make it based on the music, and I found people who wanted to do it based on that. And the songs are right out of my guts, you know. They are songs out of my heart and soul, and the album is exactly me. That's what it is.

Oxford American: How would you describe Private Radio?

Billy Bob: My album has been compared to a cross between Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. There are two songs I covered: "He Was a Friend of Mine," and "Lost HIghway" by Hank Williams. Everything else was original. The originals are dark and moody story-songs.

There are two songs on Private Radio that could go right on country radio.....although they will not get on country radio because of the current state of it. The country songs on my album aren't pop-country things. They are actual country songs. They would've definitely fit on country radio in the '60s.

I have one spoken work thing on my album that I think you will really dig. It is something Marty and I did. During a period of about six months, I started drinking beer again. I eventually quit again, but just every now and then I would have a few. Anyway, one night Marty and I were out in the studio and it was real dark, and our engineer Jim Mitchell, was there, and Marty just told me, "Talk to me about that house you grew up in that was way out in the country in Alpine, Arkansas." Marty started playing this acoustic guitar, and I started talking about the.....South. The story that came out was totally ad-libbed, and what is on the record has never been monkeyed with.

Also, we have one song on the record that I played drums on. It was one of the those nights when I had had a few drinks. Marty and I are just all over the place. When they first started mixing this one song called "Your Blue Shadow," Jim, the engineer, said, "Well, the problem is that you've got one part of the song that is 122 beats a minute and then 112 beats a minute. It is really all over the place." We tried to recut it with the band, and it never was as good as the version Marty and I did.

You know, in the old days, when you listened to those soul Stax or Beatles songs....they did that. These days people are conditioned to hear this metronomic beat on the radio. It's like they have metronomes in their heads. So everybody was worried about it, but we never beat the vibe of the first version, and he never could. So that song is on the record, just the way it is.

There is one song that Randy Scruggs and I wrote. Randy had a chorus hook. It's a song about my wife, called "Angelina." He said, "I don't know if you like this or not," and he just started playing several bars of this thing and the little chorus hook, and he showed me the words.....four lines or something like that. And I said, "Damn! I love that!" He said, "I don't know if you want to write a song about your wife or not." I said, "Well, I already wrote one on the record about her ["Your Blue Shadow"], but I would love to have one with her name on it." I said, "Hang on a second." So I picked up a pen and paper and, in about two minutes, I wrote all the verses and the middle eight and then Randy and I cut it that night. My wife was such an inspiration for some of the songs on that record.

Since we recorded the album in our house, it was great for Angie to come down every now and then and just be there in the studio with us. Sometimes, while the guys were doing a little tedious thing that I wouldn't have to be around for, I could just go up and watch a few episodes of King of the Hill with her. She totally understands what I'm doing, beyond anything that I could describe to you. She was so supportive of everything. She loves the music.

We didn't do a whole lot of monkey business on this album. I don't have any guest starts. It's basically Marty's band and Barry Beckett and me. We wanted the first record to be like Sling Blade was, which was my first movie as a director. It turned out to be really what is me. Marty and I sing all of the harmonies, except on three songs. Those were songs that needed big choruses. So we got Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook, and he sang on those three songs. We matched up really well, and that was it.

For whatever reason, the one thing I can say is I did my record the way I wanted to. I did it right out of my guts and right out of my heart. I sing like I sing, I write like I write, and the guys I played music with play like they play. For the people who don't like it, God bless them. For people who want to criticize it to be smart, they can kiss my ass.

I didn't want any of my big star friends on it. I wanted it to just be me. I wanted everybody to hear what my music is like. A lot of people load up a lot of guest stars. I'll do that on a covers record or something that is for fun.

Being on Earl Scruggs's record was such a great pleasure for me. But for my first record out there on a major label, I had to be pure. The fact of the matter is these days I'm being totally honest. I've always tried to be honest in my work, but I'm being honest in terms of what I think about it, and I'm not trying to win any prizes.

Oxford American: How has Marty Stuart as a producer affected your album?

Billy Bob: Marty is a hero of mine. I kind of feel like I'm a ghost and people don't even know I'm around half the time, or they don't hear what I'm saying, and Marty is the same way, and when we get together, we ground each other and also float above things as ghosts together really easily. We just have a way of talking to each other that works. Marty gives me confidence in myself, and he is straight with me. In the beginning, I thought, Do I need to sound more country? I'm on Mercury Nashville. Does this mean that it needs to be countrier? He said, "I want you to do it exactly the way you feel like doing it. Whatever comes out of you is what we want." As a result, we've got like eleven or twelve songs that have a life of their own. I've got to tell you that when Marty plays the mandolin, it is hard to be in the same room. It's amazing. On guitar, too.

Oxford American: Before Private Radio had you ever made a record?

Billy Bob: Yeah. I had recorded stuff years ago -- little local stuff in a band. The Tres Hombres made a record in Houston that probably sold a hundred copies.

Oxford American: Let me guess. The band liked ZZ Top.

Billy Bob: [Laughs] Oh yeah. We sounded exactly like ZZ Top. We did original songs, but we sounded like them. I'm friends with those guys these days and we all get a laugh out of it. Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] told me one time that a friend of his came in and said, "Wait till you hear this band called Tres Hombres! They were over at some club playing your songs the other night. If you guys ever want to learn how to play your own stuff live, you need to go listen to these guys." Gibbons got a real kick of that.

Oxford American: What musician do you most admire?

Billy Bob: Not that I do anything like he does, but I have to say it is Chet Atkins. I don't even know how a human being can do what he does.

Oxford American: Who encouraged you to pursue music?

Billy Bob: I was raised around it. My uncle was a country musician. My mother's brother was kind of an alcoholic carpenter who had a voice like Jim Reeves and played guitar like Chet Atkins, practically. He played an upside-down Telecaster, left-handed, and he was just one of those guys who everybody loved, but he just couldn't get his life together. I actually wrote a movie about him called The Sounds of Country. It's been finished for years, and I've been saving it until I know that I can do it without them messing with it, like they did with All The Pretty Horses.

Anyhow, my mother had always been such a music fan, and she told me that my first two words -- because we lived in Arkansas out in the woods, and when I was a kid, we had lots of tornadoes and because she listened to Elvis records constantly -- were funnel and Elvis.

My mother had one of these old record players, the kind that you put the arm on it, and the records fall down, and then it would shut off when it was done. So that is what she would go to sleep by every night. Every night she had a certain record that she would listen to, and Elvis's King Creole was one of them. I listened to Elvis, Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, and then when I was in elementary school, I found a Mothers of Invention album in a record store. I didn't even know what that was, but I thought, Hey that looks like of weird. I'm going to buy that. So I started listening to the Mothers and Captain Beefheart and the Bonzo Dog Band and all that stuff.

I was especially a big fan of the Mothers' early stuff like Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, Only in it for the Money, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Burnt Weeny Sandwich is one of my all-time favorite records. I wrote Sling Blade while listening to that.

Oxford American: Before your film career took off, did you have aspirations to be a recording artist?

Billy Bob: Well, yeah, from the time I was a little kid. That is how I started out. I was in a band when I was nine. We were called the McCoveys. We named ourselves after Willie McCovey, the San Francisco Giants baseball player. [Laughs] In those days, bands always called themselves "The" somethings, you know. I think I had seen a McCoys record cover and then I was looking at my baseball cards one day -- because I collected baseball cards -- and I always liked Willie McCovey, so I thought, Hey! How about The McCoveys? No one's using that! This was around the time The Beatles came to America, 1965. I must've been ten. I'll never forget watching them on The Ed Sullivan Show the first time. It was astounding.

Oxford American: What did The McCovey's play?

Billy Bob: We played a lot of Dave Clark Five songs. But the first song we ever played live in front of a big audience was for a PTA meeting at my elementary school. We played "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Sgt. Barry Sadler. We didn't have a microphone or anything like that. We just did instrumentals at that time. I played drums in the very first group I was in. We had two guys on guitar and a drummer. There was no bass. We just played the music to "The Ballad of the Green Berets," even though the words to the song were the whole point.

But probably what got me into bands was the British Invasion. The stuff that made me want to play music, like play drums or whatever, was The Beatles the the Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers. It's funny, but of all the things that I listened to, I was never a Mowtown fan. I liked the Temptations but I never liked the Motown sound. I was a Stax guy all the way across the board. That was it right there.

Do you ever notice how every musician -- and I don't give a crap if they play in a grunge or heavy metal band -- will say that their influences are Robert Johnson or B.B. King or Elmore James or Lightnin' Hopkins? That is such horseshit! A heavy metal group? An old band to them is Aerosmith.

Oxford American: That's no different from ninety percent of the country acts in the early '90s paying lip service to George Jones and Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. At least Garth Brooks came out and claimed Billy Joel as an influence.

Billy Bob: You have to take your hat off to him for saying it.

Oxford American: I've met several major country actors who admitted that Barry Manilow was an important influence.

Billy Bob: I'm going to do something kind of revolutionary, if they let me. I'm against videos. I hate them. They pretty much ruined music and movies. But if I'm going to do one for this album, I've got to do it with some sort of artistic integrity. So I'm going to make a video of one of my songs called "The Mountain." It's Dwight Yoakam's favorite song on the record. Anyway, I want to shoot the whole video in one shot. Just an old lady on a porch.

[Over the phone there is furious car-honking.]

Jesus Crist! This woman is going through her grocery store coupons down the freeway here. She is all over the damn road! I can't believe it.

Oxford American: In Memphis, people drive like they just fell off of tractors.

Billy Bob: Oh I know! They've always driven like this in Memphis. It wasn't coupons, and it wasn't a woman. I don't see that well. It was a guy unwrapping an ice cream sandwich. You know how weird it is to unwrap an ice cream sandwich to start with. Those two little folded corners at the top, and you have to get each one of those and pull that other thing out, and half of the chocolate stuff comes off of it and gets under your thumbnail. I'm sure that is what he was going through, but geez, he's driving!

Oxford American: We almost always keep ice cream sandwiches in our freezer. They are so damn good, aren't they? Especially the minis.

Billy Bob: Oh yeah. I can't eat ice cream because I'm allergic to dairy, so I eat these things called Tofutti Cuties [Laughs], which I don't like saying, but they sure are good. My kids eat them, so I can just chalk it up to they wanted them.

Oxford American: I bet it's hot there in Memphis right now.

Billy Bob: You're right. It is.

Oxford American: You know, I think Memphis is like a bizarre vortex. Call it inspiring -- or is this contradictory? -- simultaneously elevated and entropic.

Billy Bob: a way.....there is no Memphis....there is no town. You don't bring your thoughts all together in Memphis. Where would you tell someone you are going to meet them in Memphis? You know? "I'll see you in Memphis. Uh....where do you want to meet?" "I don't know. Sun? The Peabody? But where are they really? [Laughs].

Oxford American: I was in my twenties before I realized that most of the world wasn't as blessed as Memphis when it came to a virbrant and influential musical culture. We had Sun and Stax and Hi and all kinds of great music.

Billy Bob: Absolutely! God! Memphis was like everything to me when I was growing up. There was Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich.

Oxford American: He's one of the great ones.

Billy Bob: People don't realize.....that son-of-a-bitch was smooth as silk! I loved Charlie Rich. But if someone asks me who is the greatest singer of all time, I would have to say Roy Orbison. For me.

Oxford American: People who worked with him have told me that all those high operatic notes he hit were effortless. They said he didn't sing that loud in the studio, but what came through the monitors was another story.

Billy Bob: That's right. That is what Tom Petty told me. He said that you could be out there with [Orbison] when he was singing and you would think, "Damn, poor guy! He's getting old." But when they would do a playback, it would knock you through the wall.

Oxford American: What records do you take on the road with you?

Billy Bob: I always take a Merle Haggard collection of greatest hits. I always take a George Jones anthology, and I always take Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I've gotten to be pretty good phone pals with Beefheart. We just talk to each other now and then. I did some paintings for him recently. He really loved them. I painted the names of the paintings on them. One of them was called "Leon's Jet Black Haircut." I did another one called "Taters Are Cheap," which is a statement on world hunger. I painted another thing that was a sky -- like a sunset sort of deal -- nothing but blood and yellow in it. There is no blue in that sky! The title of that is "So Grandpa Just Rotted?"

I'm afraid to play him my record because it's a little too upbeat for him. Beefheart doesn't really talk to people anymore. He just stays up there where he lives in Northern California, and I'll probably never meet him. I'll probably just talk to him on the phone. We talk about art and politics and what was on TV and that kind of stuff.

I always tell people that I grew up the way I did because I grew up listening to JIm Reeves, Hank Williams, the Mothers of Invention, and Captain Beefheart. [Laughs] So you know, that doesn't make for a real stable child.

Oxford American: Do you have a favorite song?

Billy Bob: I've got to tell you that on the drive on the way over here from California. I listened to "Walking the Cow" by Daniel Johnston over a hundred times in a row. I think it may be the greatest melody ever. That and "Ashokan Farewell" from that Civil War thing. Those two have to be the best melodies ever written. I can't quit listening to them. "Ashokan Farewell" is one that I always take with me on the road. I always take that, and the Allman Brothers' Live at Fillmore East.

Oxford American: A classic. I loved "Hot 'Lanta."

Billy Bob: Oh buddy! I was once in a soul group called Hot 'Lanta. We named it after the Allman Brothers song, too. It wasn't like any of us were from Atlanta. We didn't even play the song. [Laughs] We just called the band Hot 'Lanta. It was predominately a black group, but there were a couple of white guys in it. I was the singer and I played drums, too.

The first time I heard the Allman Brothers, I thought, This will be my favorite music forever. There is no way around it. So I can safely say that my favorite band ever in history is the Allman Brothers, and that Capricorn Records is my favorite label of all time.

The first time I saw Angie, I knew that I would never get her out of my head. I knew that she was my favorite person always. I knew we were going to end up together. In musical terms, it was exactly the same way as with the Allman Brothers.

The greatest slide guitar player ever was Duane Allman, but the best guitar solo I've ever heard is on An Evening with the Allman Brothers: Dickey Betts's solo on "Blue Sky." I think that is just the prettiest thing ever.

Oxford American: What would you describe about the Allman Brothers that sort of elevated their music for you?

Billy Bob: One of the great things about their music is you don't know how to describe it. You know, what are they? A rock band? A Blues band?

Oxford American: They also encompass gospel and jazz and --

Billy Bob: Everything. What are they? It's just the Allman Brothers. Some spirit speaks through those guys. I believe in the eternal life. I believe that we keep living life over and over and over, and I always have. Do you know the first song that Gregg Allman wrote and brought over when he joined the Allman Brothers? It was "Dreams." Now how do you write that when you are twenty-one or nineteen or whatever he was, unless you've lived already? There is no way you can do that.

The people who write songs who are not just sitting around thinking of "clever" stuff -- people like John Prine and Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart and those guys -- they don't do what they do unless something is speaking through them. Because I know these guys! We are just a bunch of damn guys sitting around doing our thing.

I used to shovel asphalt for the highway department and work in a sawmill in Arkansas. It's like when someone asks, "Where did Sling Blade come from?" Hell! I don't know. I was born with it. You know?

I'm not some songwriting genius or anything, but I've got to say that "Angelina" is exactly what it is supposed to be, and it came out of nowhere. Marty and I do that all the time when we are writing songs. It just comes out of nowhere. It comes from somewhere, obviously, but I mean it's not like we sit down and construct anything. Everything is about how you feel.

Oxford American: Where do you see yourself and your music career in ten years?

Billy Bob: I don't really try and think about the future. I know that I'll always be doing it, whether anybody listens to it or not. So ten years from now, I'll probably still be making music -- probably with Marty and John Prine and Dwight and people who I know -- even if I'm doing it in my basement just for myself and my wife and kids and my mother and brother.

These days, I'm so tired of it all. I just want to make records, and I just want to make movies, and I want to do all of that.

Oxford American: During one of our conversations last year, you made some remark like, "You just watch: there's coming a time where it'll be my turn to get kicked" -- or something to that effect.

Billy Bob: I will put out some things in my lifetime -- a couple of have already been put out, and this record may be one of them -- but there will be things that I'll do that won't be recognized for what they are until way after I'm gone, and I know that. I can try and be humble about it, but why do that? Any time you do something that is true, any time you do something that is right out of your gut, people will, at some point, respond to it.

These days, songs and movies and books are products more than ever. You hear people say it all the time: "We've got a lot of product this year." Well, the word product being associated with anything artistic just creeps me out.

It used to be that we would say, "We've got to turn these stupid people around" -- meaning the head of the label or the movie studios or the producers or whoever they are -- because the audience, the people themselves, weren't that stupid. People really wanted the good stuff. Now what we have to do is convince the people again because they have been fed this stuff for so long. Human beings are influenced by repetition and conditioning, so movies are now cut like rock videos, and so now people want whatever is the loudest and fastest because that's all they've been exposed to. We're going to want the most so much that it is going to explode one day, and we are going to have nothing. That is what I see happening.

Now on the other hand, people will tell you, "No! No! No! I just saw this wonderful little independent film last week, and there are only four shots in the movie" -- or something like that. But even independent films have become infected. For an independent film to become successful and considered great by the critics, it has to be so cynical and about the weirdest topic imaginable. I always say it has to be about a one-legged grapefruit salesman from France who screws his mother. Also, the independent films are becoming younger and younger. For a while, we would see someone like Martin Landau or Peter Falk in independent movies, you know what I mean? Now it is all about fifteen-year-olds. I understand they are the biggest movie-going audience, but geez!

I heard this girl in Little Rock one time. She knew my family or something and I said, "What did you think about so-and-so-movie?" She said, "I liked it a lot. It moved real fast." So that is what they want. And test audiences are actually controlling what we see and what we hear. And if you are going to let the audience tell you what they want before you put it out, then what is the point of any of it?

The All the Pretty Horses experience almost killed me, and I see what the media can do to you from having a high-profile marriage to being an actor to being a musician or whatever it is. I'm just so tired of it that I can't play the game at all anymore.

I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival and they've been telling me that it is disrespectful to not wear a tuxedo. Well, tough shit! It's disrespectful then. If they want to watch my movies, then they are going to watch the movies. If they are wanting me to come over there and have a goddamn fashion show, then invite me to a fashion show. I wear what I wear, and I'm not going to wear a holey t-shirt. I want to wear nice clothes that probably would cost a lot more than a tuxedo, actually.

Oxford American: But That's not the point.

Billy Bob: That's not the point. I like to dress the way I like to dress. And I don't like the sameness of tuxedos. I never have.

By Rick Clark

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