The ballad of Billy Bob
Long before Sling Blade, there was only rock ‘n’ roll
Years before he began turning heads and making a name for himself in Hollywood, Billy Bob Thornton was tooling around in a cover band. Unbeknownst to many familiar with the Arkansas native’s roles in films such as Sling Blade, A Simple Plan, Armageddon and Bad Santa, music has always been Thornton’s main passion.
Growing up on American folk and country, and the sounds of the 1960s British invasion (he’s a huge fan of the Kinks and Dave Clark 5), the drummer/singer played in several bands before eventually putting his musical ambitions on hold to pursue an acting career.
Now, with the release of Beautiful Door, his fourth album in six years, the 52-year-old Thornton is back in his comfort zone, creating mellow folk-country songs that tell sad, pretty tales, both fictional and personal, in the classic storyteller style of some of his heroes.
You received a lot of press when you put out your first album, Private Radio, back in 2001 due to not many people knowing your musical background. Since then, your albums have flown more under the radar …
Well, I put an album out just like anyone else does. This album we’re not putting out quite as quietly as the previous two—it’s a little more like Private Radio in that sense. But the fact is, we’re in the Americana-roots world, and that’s where I’m happy being. I never wanted to put an album out like it’s some big pop record.
Does it irk you that people make a big deal about Billy Bob the actor trying to be Billy Bob the musician?
The whole actor thing, they’ll say, “an actor trying to be a musician,” but they don’t say, “a musician trying to be an actor,” which is kind of creepy to me. If Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan sings a song, nobody says, “Boy, they don’t have much range.” They just say, “Wow, that’s Bob Dylan,” or “That’s Johnny Cash,” you know. But if you’re an actor, all of a sudden you have to sing like Whitney Houston …
Kris Kristofferson actually talks about me in articles as a songwriter. And I figure if he says something about me, he probably knows more about it than some fucking guy who’s jealous cause I was married to Angelina or something. [Laughs]
You have co-produced your albums before, but you produced this one on your own. What prompted the change?
I’ve produced movies before that I didn’t put my name on, just because I didn’t have any interest in being “a producer.” ‘Cause in the movie business, “producer” means “guy who eats lunch,” you know? Lots of lunches. [Laughs] But in record producing, it’s really more similar to a movie director’s job, where you actually are kind of running the show.
Your previous albums included a lot of songs dealing with seemingly fictional characters and situations, but Beautiful Door seems to be more personal. What did you set out to achieve with this record?
Once I wrote the first two songs, I realized we were making an album about life and death, and how you confront it all. I guess the one thing that’s different about this one is that there are some personal songs and personal observations.
But there are also a couple of politically oriented songs, which is something I don’t usually do. You know, when we hear numbers on television, like “22 killed in Iraq,” or whatever, we just hear a number. But the thing is, of those 22 people killed, there are 22 families who are going through a very different experience than we are just seeing it on TV. So, I sing songs about those people.
You’ve talked openly about some tough periods of your life. Can you talk about the dilemma that seems to plague some musicians, where overcoming sadness or getting out of a rut are such common themes, yet without all that, the music might not exist?
There’s no doubt about it. I rarely write a song on a day where I’m just happy as hell. If you don’t feel stuff really intensely, it’s really hard to get your best work out.
Stone-cold sober or snot-slinging drunk, if you’re not feeling something, it’s really hard to do it. But I don’t purposely torture myself in order to write; I’ve got enough stored up from the old days. I could be like Pat Boone the rest of my life and still have plenty to write about. [Laughs]