Songs for scoundrels

Actor-turned-musician Billy Bob Thornton lets his Americana roots show

“(Music) is one of the only things that I’m good at” drawls Billy Bob Thornton in his smoky battered southern drawl. “I’ve been playing music since I was a kid and I was doing that way before movies or any of that stuff. That’s really all I can do. I’m either with the kids watching baseball making a record or making a movie. That’s basically what I do. I don’t know much of anything about anything else.”

From the drawn-out vowels of his cigarette-scarred speech to his remarkably ordinary interests Thornton might just fool you into thinking he’s a completely normal guy a salt-of-the-earth gentleman who enjoys a lukewarm lager at a ballgame as much as the guy sitting next to him. And he is in a way. He says that he loves his kids baseball and music. To him it’s completely incidental that he’s won an Academy Award for screenwriting starred in and directed a number of feature films and has now released four solo recording projects. Others however might classify such accomplishments as well beyond the regular.

“I was a roadie when I was a teenager” says Thornton. “I don’t make any money in music. There wasn’t really a springboard for it. I have to go out there and hunt down a record deal like anybody else. If I were doing a vanity project I’d certainly write a very different type of song than what I do. I write Americana roots music and that’s not where you sell records. I’m not a catchy pop song kind of guy.”

Growing up in Hot Springs Arkansas Thornton would often listen to old records with his brother Jimmy before going to bed. Though he was raised on artists like Elvis Presley the Dave Clark Five the Kinks and the Beatles Thornton’s sound seldom reflects much pop influence often taking on an old-school country vibe or channelling the gritty soul and celebration of tradition à la Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The “country” label however makes Thornton weary.

“I’m a lover of country music but only old country music” he says. “I think that the right-wing country music is just the crap that’s on CMT now. I think you’ll find that among the classic guys — Willie Nelson Johnny Cash and those guys — they’re a pretty liberal bunch. You’d be surprised at how liberal classic country music is compared to modern country music. If you take a Def Leppard power ballad let a guy put a cowboy hat on then add a steel guitar and a fiddle that’s pretty much what country is now.”

Though most of his shows open with a high-octane electric rockabilly set by the Box Masters (Thornton and his bandmates in different outfits) he stays well clear of hollow showmanship. Even in this departure from his usual repertoire Thornton stays true to the roots that inspired him.

“If you think about the old hillbilly songs those songs are pretty intense” he says. “A lot of them are about murder and a lot of crazy stuff. Once again if you want to have a hit these days in country music all you have to do is sing about Iraq and the troops and have an American flag behind you. I don’t think anything I write about is in conflict with the roots that I love.”