Billy Bob Thornton has been playing music since The Grateful Dead were The Warlocks. Billy Bob was a child of Malvern, Arkansas, where the railroads met on the way to Hot Springs. Thornton’s forty-year musical career is sometimes overshadowed by his film successes, but he finds his music no less important than his movies. The two have melded, especially in the jamband world. Thornton’s directorial debut was a film on Widespread Panic. He cast Col. Bruce Hampton and Vic Chesnutt in Sling Blade and has jammed onstage with Dickey Betts.
More importantly than the myriad beautiful women, the Oscar, the four solo albums, the greatest portrayal of Santa Claus of all time, and having Johnny Cash cover one of his songs, Thornton has shoveled asphalt and starved to the point of hospitalization. His amazing rides along the highs and lows of life, his willingness to confront death and study kindness in his movies and songs, and his ability to discuss these subjects with candor make for a stellar interview subject. Mr. Woodcock, Thornton’s latest movie, opened last Friday. Thornton’s latest solo album, Beautiful Door, was released earlier this year. Stores with signed copies are listed here.
Taylor Hill: People don’t realize this, but you’ve been playing in bands for about 35 years, right?
Billy Bob Thornton: Probably longer ago than that! I had my first band when I was ten, about ’65. We were just like any kids. My town had sort of a crazy number of bands in it for a town that size. Malvern, Arkansas, it was 10,000 people. And we had a lot of bands a couple of bands pretty big regionally back in those days. The Yardleys actually made a record, so we were all real impressed. They may as well have been the Beatles to us. All of us kids, we had bands, and everyone wanted to be the Beatles and the Stones. So we played a bunch of Dave Clark Five songs, because we wanted to be different.
TH: I read that you can still name all the members of the Dave Clark Five. Would you please do that for our readers?
BBT: Wellthere was a time, these days I don’t even know if I know em. Mike Smith was the singer and the keyboard player. Dave Clark was the drummer. They had a guy named Lenny and a guy named Denny. Denny played saxophone. Lenny was the guitar player. Rick Huxley was the bass player. I always get confused on the last names of Lenny and Denny though. Can’t remember what their last names were though.
TH: Where were we before I got smartass and interrupted you?
BBT: Oh, we were being the Dave Clark Five just to be different. Nobody played those songs. So we played “Glad All Over” and “Bits and Pieces” and “Catch Us If You Can” and all those songs. I also liked the Dave Clark Five because I was a drummer as a kid still am. But I always was a drummer, and they were named after the drummer and I thought that was pretty cool. Then I saw the Beatles and I wanted to be Ringo, and later on I wanted to be John Lennon. If I had to pick my Beatle it would be Lennon.
TH: When did you start getting into Beefheart and Zappa?
BBT: I guess I must have heard them as early as ’66, definitely by ’67 I was listening to the Mothers (of Invention). I had their first two or three albums. My brother and I used to go in the record store they had a record store called Paula’s Record Shop, which is actually in one of our songs on the Beautiful Door album. A song called “In the Day” talking about how Paula’s Record shut down and everything. I would go in there and I would look at records I wouldn’t even know anything about it! In my town, people didn’t walk around the street talking about the Mothers of Invention or anything. I’d see a record and say “Wow, that looks strange. I’ll take that one.”
So my brother and I got real hooked on the Mothers of Invention as well as the Bonzo Dog Band out of England as they were kind of their version of the Mothers. The first record of Beefheart’s I heard was Trout Mask Replica which I guess wouldn’t have been til about ’69. Got hooked on Beefheart too. So I was kind of musically a person with multiple personality disorder. I would listen to Hank Williams and Jim Reeves on the same day I would listen to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
I was all over the map musically, so I went from Sun Records as a kid Jerry Lee Lewis and all them, and Cash, and Elvis, to the British Invasion Cream and Traffic, then The Allman Brothers Band and all that, then Beefheart and the Mothers. That was my favorite stuff. Once I was in my mid-to-late teens, it was what they call now classic rock. The Allman Brothers are my favorite band of all time.
TH: Have you ever played with the Allman Brothers?
BBT: I played with Dickey Betts. I played with Dickey’s old band in Columbus, Ohio, probably in 2003. We were opening for Elvis Costello, and were up in that area and I had a couple of days off. Me and Mike Scheff, who plays guitar with us. Dickey had found out we were up that way I knew Dickey a little bit, and I know Gregg pretty well too.
I was kind of tied in because Phil Walden of Capricorn had been my manager in the ’80s. He managed me and Jim Varney as actors. That was my connection to Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Vic Chesnutt and all those guys. The first movie I ever directed was a documentary on Widespread Panic. I’m not sure what year that was. I think we shot it probably in ’90 or ’91. I usually judge things by which girl I was with at the time, and I remember what girl I was with at the time.
TH: So you’ve got a lot of outlooks then.
BBT: Whole bunch of different ones.
TH: What leads you to go through the recording and touring process and all that comes with it when, given your success, you don’t have to anymore.
BBT: Well I have to do it as much as I have to do anything else. Basically all I do is make movies, and play music, and watch baseball. I grew up in music, I never considered being in movies until I went to California. I guess to ask me that question my question would be “would you ask Tom Petty that same question?” Because Tom Petty grew up playing music and so did I. And plus, this is not my first records. I made my first record in Muscle Shoals in 1974. This is my fourth solo album. We made a record on the Lost Highway label, Private Radio, in 2000 or 2001. I make a record every year or two I make a record all the time really. We never stop recording.
TH: I wanted to ask you about a couple of lines from your songs that I really liked. One was “she even had a tattoo on her aura” from “Carnival Girl.” What’s the story there?
BBT: Well, Carnival Girl was kind of loosely based on an experience I had one time. Girl didn’t work with the carnival, but carnivals were a big deal to me growing up. And every now and then, you’d see a girl working for the carnival who looked pretty good. There was a girl along those lines one time that I assumed because she was traveling the country with an outfit that she’d be a pretty easy girl. She let me know that wasn’t the case. The old thing is if a girl’s all tattooed up and has a nose ring doesn’t necessarily make her loose. It’s just a lesson in not judging a book by its cover.
This record, the Beautiful Door record is really about life and living, and life and dying, and how you deal with all of it. I didn’t want to just do songs that were politically-oriented, or my own personal experiences always. I wanted to make a statement on just living this life and how people ought to be treated. The last 12 songs Brad Davis and I wrote are the ones on the album, we finally got into the vein we wanted to be in. We discovered that was what it was about how you deal with life and people, how you face life and death and deal with the people along the way. “Carnival Girl” was just a song on there about people who sometimes may appear to be on the underbelly of life, but they have as much dignity or more as everybody else.
TH: You were on the underbelly of life for a long time, and even got myocarditis because all you could afford were potatoes. But you never gave up, you never got a permanent job, and you never settled. What gets you through ten or fifteen years of that when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel?
BBT: Well one thing, I’ve always been intentionally bent to the creative world, and that’s all I was gonna do anyway, so I didn’t really have any choice in the matter. But the other thing is, I didn’t have a lot to go home to. So, it wasn’t like I was really toughing it out or being that brave about not turning tail and going home, because when I left for California, I was shoveling asphalt for the Highway Department. So, it wasn’t like I had a lot to go back to.
My family didn’t have money, so it wasn’t nothing like that. But I never considered being an actor. When I was growing up, we didn’t even go to a movie theater til I moved into town when I was nine or ten years old. I wasn’t like Martin Scorsese who was passionate about being a movie director from the time he was a kid. I went to the movies and saw Don Knotts, Dick Van Dyke, people like that, just like any other kid. I never thought about being an actor. I was just going to play music and baseball. That’s all I was going to do. To this day, that’s what I do. I just added movies to it.
My friend Tom Epperson, he was older than me by four or five years. He was my neighbor, and he was going to California to be a screenwriter, said “Listen, you did drama class in high school, why don’t you try to be an actor?” I played music back home, and we opened for a lot of big people. Music especially at that time was real competitive. Arkansas, and sort of East Texas, where I grew up, it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of it, so I decided “Well, I’ll go with you.” But the only reason I took drama class was to get at least a C in something and because there were girls in there. I just went out there with the hopes of getting in music or in movies.
We spent several miserable years, and then I happened to get into a theatre group in California and I got discovered out of there by a producer/casting director guy. I started to get bit parts here and there, and had to go with I was making a little bit of money.
TH: I noticed you snuck a John Prine hat into Pushing Tin.
BBT: Yeah I did.
TH: Didn’t you direct him, too?
BBT: John’s an old friend. I’ve known John for years, and I actually directed him in a movie I did called Daddy and Them. He played my brother in it. It wasn’t too long after John had cancer and they’d taken half of his throat out. He did the movie right after. That’s been ten years, probably. He’s doing great these days. Even though I was a former rock and roll guy and a classic country kind of guy, the guys that influenced me as a songwriter, particularly lyrically, were guys like John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Warren Zevon, guys like that.
TH: Your first song on Beautiful Door, “It’s Just Me” sounds a lot like something of his. Was it a kind of tribute to him, or influenced by him?
BBT: Well, yeah, at that time, Warren Warren died when I was making the album down in Texas, and I talked to him on the phone every chance he was strong enough to talk. But during that time, when I was writing songs over those couple of years that ended up on here, I was always influenced, at least subconsciously, by Warren, and by all these friends of mine you get to a certain age and they all start going, and usually because of all the fun they had early on. “It’s Just Me” deals with suicide, but there’s more than one kind of that.
I wouldn’t say that the song was directly influenced by Warren, but definitely all of that’s in there all the time. “It’s Just Me” is literally a song about a spirit singing inside a person that killed himself saying, “Hey listen, my jealousy’s the reason I’m gone, and now that I am, I realize what a ridiculous thing it was. So now I’m living in here when I should have been all the time, just in a place that I loved. But don’t let me bother you, the jealousy’s gone, so live your life the way you want to because I’m not in here watching you, just living where I want to be.” And the very next song on the album is “Resting Your Soul,” which is that same story seen from the point of view of the person left behind.
TH: Another one I really like was “memories creep like flaming vines.”
BBT: Sometimes you’ll think of something, and it literally feels like it’s going through your veins, and veins remind me of vines. When you’re thinking of stuff that lights you up inside like that it really does feel like it’s literally rushing through your blood. Just the fact that you’re looking at the inside of a person, you see those veins that very much remind you of vines growing. It’s the same as saying it made my blood run cold.
TH: I think of you as someone who has lived a hundred lifetimes or so in 52 years.
BBT: I’d say that’s true, and it’s true of my music and movies and everything else. It all comes out in there. People ask me where I got the idea for this or that, and it’s usually an amalgamation of things. Having lived at times a really hard life, but definitely always an eclectic one.
I’ve had a lot of physical labor jobs. It’s funny, but the other entertainer kind of people, they’re just fascinated by the jobs I’ve had. My first job was hauling hay, all the way from that to a sawmill to a screen door factory, to a machine shop, driving a truck, shoveling asphalt, everything in the world. I even flipped pizzas for a while. Between that and all the various relationships, jobs, travels. I used to travel the country on a Continental Trailways bus and just meet everybody.
But as a writer, a life like that’s invaluable. If you start writing when you’re 19, and you’ve always lived at home, and daddy’s the insurance man, or real estate guy, or whatever, you don’t have a lot to write about yet unless you’re just nuts, naturally. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.
TH: How’d you end up casting Col. Bruce Hampton and Vic Chesnutt to be in Dwight Yoakam’s band in Sling Blade?
BBT: I met Bruce and Vic through Phil Walden. And when I started to make my movie, I was still in touch with all those guys. I had already written the scene for that band, Dwight’s horrible band, and I was trying to make that band into something like what we all had when we were growing up. There were always arguments, one of em thought he was the songwriter, and usually none were worth a shit. Bands were just a constant argument. You wouldn’t even have any gigs or anything and you still had politics in the band.
I wanted to create a band like that for the movie and obviously it’s going to be Dwight’s band to start with. I thought “I don’t want to get actors and have em play these guys in this weird band.” I wanted to get musicians but not regular musicians. I wanted guys who were all kind of eccentric, and those were the first guys I thought of. I wrote every line that Bruce said, except at one point when Dwight throws everybody out of the house, Bruce is walking out, and says something about “you’re showing your true Ares colors,” because Bruce is always he guesses people’s signs real easily. I got to tell you, he’s something else.
He threw that line out there because I told him just to say something to Dwight on the way out. But that whole poem he does in the living room, I actually wrote every word of that. But I wrote it from Bruce’s point-of-view. In other words, I wrote something that I thought Bruce would probably say anyway. He always loved that. He used to say he was going to try and make a Johnny Cash-sounding song out of that poem, but I don’t know if he ever did it or not. But Bruce really loved that. He was real pleased with that, but I just wrote it as something that Bruce might do himself.