Billy Bob Thornton straddles two worlds. He’s the guy who accepted a Best Adapted-Screenplay Oscar for his film Sling Blade while wearing a trucker hat, tuxedo jacket and bad facial hair—without a hint of irony. He’s also a musician who has been performing with rock and country bands for more than 30 years.
There is a double standard that forgives successful musicians who become actors (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Justin Timberlake) but frowns upon actors who become musicians (Scarlett Johansson). This has proved to be a cruel twist of fate for Thornton. He probably never will be taken seriously as a musician because of his onscreen fame—even though he’s been making music for most of his life. But the newly minted self-titled double-CD from his band, The Boxmasters, might shift the tides in his favor.
One disk of The Boxmasters’ double CD contains 12 original tracks penned and arranged by Thornton (who was unavailable for an interview for this story) and JD Andrew (who also plays electric, acoustic and bass guitar as well as sings background vocals for The Boxmasters). The band is rounded out by Mike Butler, who plays electric guitar, lap steel and dobro, with the added talents of country musicians Donnie Fritts and Marty Stuart on the tracks, “Build Your Own Prison” and “That Mountain.” There’s also the single “Poor House” and a little gem called “Shit List,” which captures the band’s sensibilities to a T with the lyrics, “Just know that you’re sorely missed/and I want to lend a hand/even though I’m on your shit list/I’ll always be your man.”
The second disk is a collection of 11 cover songs from artists as varied as Ernest Tubb and Kenny Loggins.
“We’re not trying to hide our influences at all,” Andrew says. “In fact, the reason for doing a two-record set, with one being all covers, is that we wanted to pay tribute to the artists that really influenced us. We have a wide range of eras represented but it generally stops around 1968.”
This particular era is a passion The Boxmasters share both artistically and personally.
“That’s the great thing about Billy. He’s an amazing musical historian and he’s still that guy that grew up poor in Arkansas and remembers what it was like. Having a talent like that writing the lyrics for your band is something we’re extremely proud of,” Andrew says.
Andrew and Butler are no backup band though. Both have solid careers outside of The Boxmasters. Andrew won a Grammy in 2005 for his engineering work on Kanye West’s The College Dropout and Butler keeps busy behind the boards for bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Shins and Death Cab for Cutie. If you’ve been to the movies or turned on a radio in the last 10 years, chances are you’ve encountered a project touched by Thornton, Butler or Andrew.
Andrew, Butler and Thornton (who handles lead vocals and drums) are the nucleus of The Boxmasters, while a whirling cloud of pickers and pokers act as the electrons that provide the band with its unmistakable country vibe, which is reminiscent of the stuff people usually make fun of when they think of country music: My wife left me, the tractor died and so on.
“The songs are narratives about people in a lower middle class lifestyle, which Billy writes about amazingly,” Andrew says. “For the sound we’ll use what we call the ‘Cash guitar.’ It naturally occurs in the way that we all play and the way we like to hear things, so it ended up sounding like a record made in the 1960s.”
The obvious question about The Boxmasters is if the band members will ever be taken seriously as musicians despite Thornton’s fame.
There will always be people who want to see the spectacle, the celebrity in captivity,” Andrew says. “There’s definitely a lot of people who come to our shows that want to see him and know his movies and don’t necessarily know his music very well, but when we toured last year we found that those people that came out to the see the celebrity left as music fans.”
Johnny Cash’s performance as Tommy Brown on a 1974 episode of Columbo was one of the definitive musician cameos in television history. There was no illusion of who he was, but we were willing to suspend our disbelief and accept him on camera because deep down he was the same person from Jim Marshall’s photograph, where he defiantly flips the bird at the camera during his 1969 gig at San Quentin Prison.
Rather than crumble to the pre-existing stigmas of actor-turned-rock star, The Boxmasters’ release of a double album of 1960s-era country music puts Thornton on par with Cash as a rebellious musician.
And much like Cash, Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters are who they are, no matter who is listening.