The Wit and Wisdom of Actor, Director, Writer, Musician and Southern Rock Fan
by Michael Buffalo Smith
I have been a fan of Billy Bob for years. I vaguely recall his acting in the old Burt Reynolds TV show Evening Shade, but it was the cult classic film Slingblade which he wrote, directed and starred in) that really hooked me on Thornton as an actor. The character of Karl Childers has become a cult icon. After Slingblade, I began watching every movie I could get my hands on that featured Billy Bob, including Pushing Tin, The Alamo, Monster’s Ball, Bad Santa, Ice Harvest, and one of my favorites, Daddy and Them.
A few years back, I received a CD at the Gritz office called Private Radio, Billy Bob’s first album, and loved it. I especially liked the song “Angelina.” It was then that I started hearing about Thornton the musician who had played drums since youth and at one point had the best ZZ Top tribute band in the USA, Tres Hombes. He was showing up to jam with Dickey Betts and Great Southern and recording with Styx and on tribute albums to Johnny Cash and to Warren Zevon. Then came his sophomore CD The Edge of the World, followed by his most recent and best yet, Hobo.
To a musician/writer/actor like myself, Billy Bob is a Southern fried inspiration. A man who came from poverty and made himself into a world class star. I had been trying for about five years to hook up with him for an interview, and just the other day, it finally happened. Billy Bob was everything I thought he’s be, and more. Smart, witty, downright funny actually, and an all around good guy.
Tell us a little about where you were born and raised, your parents and upbringing.
Sure. I was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I was only born there because we didn’t have a hospital. I was raised in a little town called Alpine, Arkansas, which is about an hour from Hot Springs if you take the back roads. You know, it seems a lot further. (Laughs) It was out in the middle of nowhere. The population was 110. It wasn’t really a town . It had a store, gas station and post office all in one little building. We lived with my Grandmother- my mother’s mother - until I was seven or eight. I went to school in a town called Mamvern, which is about 45 miles from Little Rock off of I-30. It was a town of about 9,000 people. Most of my history was from there. My Dad, his name was Billy Ray, he was a school teacher in middle schools. I tell everyone my dad was kind of like the guy in the movie Hoosiers, only smaller and more poverty stricken. (Laughs) He was a basketball coach. At a lot of schools he taught at, he would be the principal, the history teacher and the basketball coach. And my mother, who’s name is Virginia, was kind of a renowned psychic around there. She doesn’t really do it any more, but she would see people back then. There’s a movie I wrote called The Gift with Kate Blanchet, that is loosely based on my mother. I mean it is obviously fictionalized, but the idea of it came from her doing that.
I fully understand all of that because my wife is an astrologer in the South.
Really? Cool. Then you know. I grew up with all of that. We used to get teased at school. I think I put it in the movie, I can’t remember. Me and my brother were walking home from school one day and there was this pack of kids saying “Right up there in that house is where that witch lives. And we all got into it. That was kind of the upbringing. And I was raised around a lot of music and everything. It’s so funny, when you’re from the South. You hear somebody from the Bronx or Utah or somewhere talking about the blues or country music while they are riding around in a Mercedes listening to something off of CMT or something.
When you’re from there, and it’s such a big part of your life, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal at the time, it’s just there- you know? You're used to it. Sometimes, I can get a little snobby with the people out here in California talking about music. (Laughs) But my uncle, my mother’s brother was a guitar player. He had a country band, and by the time I was a teenager I was playing drums with them on weekends at VFW clubs and stuff. But country music is like your dad’s kind of music, and my dad died when I was about 17. If it’s their kind of music, you kind of shy away from it. So me and my friends just listened to rock and roll to be rebellious, you know. So I grew up a fan of Sun Records. I was actually a fan of all those guys, from Cash to Jerry Lee to Elvis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, all of that. That’s what I grew up a fan of until the British invasion. Then we all wanted to be The Beatles. But when I was a kid, our band wanted to be different. Everybody else thought they were The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, so we decided we were going to be The Dave Clark Five. (Laughing)
So we played a bunch of their songs. That British invasion kind of woke us up to being pop stars, and we decided that was what we wanted to do. So I was in little bands back there from the time I was nine or ten. I had a drum set from the Sears catalog. The kind that had the cardboard heads on ‘em you know? (Laughs) So they didn’t last too long. I remember getting my first set of drums with mylar heads and I went, “Hey, wow.You can’t break these things.”
You had to be lucky for your parents to let you learn drums in the house. I remember when I first got into music, drums were the first instrument I wanted to play. I had a kit like that too, from Sears. I had it for one weekend and by Monday, they had mysteriously disappeared. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Well my dad wasn’t fond of it but my mom never minded. She’s still a huge music fan. She listens to my records and stuff. I really got my musical education from my mother. She used to have a record player - remember when you could stack seven or eight records up on there and play them? When we went to bed at night, my room was across the hallway from my mother, she would put her records on, and whatever she was playing was what I listened too. That’s how I got my diversity I guess. She listened to Ray Price and Jim Reeves, and actually she listened to Roy Orbison a lot.And Elvis. My favorite Elvis record was “King Creole.” She loved that one too, that’s where I first heard it. She listened to a lot of other people. She listened to Rod McEuen. Remember him?
Oh yeah. The poet.
Yeah. He did records of poetry. She played those to go to sleep by. And they’d put me right to sleep. (Laughs) In the mid-1960’s I got into Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart and The Bonzo Dog Band. My brother and I were about the only people in town who knew who they were. There was a kid named David Jones who turned me onto a lot of the Zappa and Beefheart records that I didn’t know about. You know, I wrote the whole movie of Slingblade with a pair of headphones on listening to Burnt Weeny Sandwich.
That makes sense to me.
I tell a lot of my friends I listened to a lot of Zappa, and they say “I don’t see that.” I say, “Just think about it.” (Laughs) But then came Cream and Traffic and Deep Purple, and I started listening to all that. You know ‘67 was a big year. Essentially I grew up with a real wide musical taste, and then of course came The Allman Brothers, and that changed my life. They became and still are my favorite band of all time.
Really? Mine too. How interesting.
Yeah, they just... you know who you sound like?
There’s no tellin.’
I do? Cool. I love Johnny. If only I could produce like him! (Laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah you talk just like him. I love him. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I think the world of him.
He really is. I have a picture of you here with a good friend of mine, Miss Bonnie Bramlett.
Oh, I know Bonnie. She’s amazing. What a singer. You know, I started hanging out with that whole set in the ‘80’s. I knew Phil Walden real well. He was actually my manager for a time. he managed two actors, Jim Varney and me. This is when Capricorn had folded and he went into management. And then Capricorn came back with 311 and Widespread Panic. Phil ended up getting me to direct the first thing I ever directed, which was a documentary on Athens and Widespread Panic called Widespread Panic Live at The Georgia Theatre. That’s where I got to know all those guys, Col. Bruce Hampton and Vic Chesnutt, the guys in Widespread and all of that. As a matter of fact Dave Schools was at my house a couple of years ago. And Warren Haynes..
Your dropping names of a lot of my friends and buds now. (Laughs) Warren Haynes is the king.
I love Warren.
He’s the new "hardest working man in show business."
Golly. You’re right. Warren works harder than anybody I know. I was in New York making a movie called School for Scoundrels, which is coming out in September, and last year we were in New York working on it, and Warren and his wife invited me and my assistant and we went over to their apartment there in New York. He took us to his favorite local Italian restaurant. That’s the last time I saw Warren. But I talked to him on the phone a couple of months ago.
Growing up in the Spartanburg and Greenville area here in South Carolina, I was always a huge fan of The Marshall Tucker Band. Did you listen to them?
I was a huge Marshall Tucker fan. I never knew those guys. That’s the only bunch I never really knew. But I was a big Southern Rock fan and such a fan of Capricorn Records that I could mention people that were on the label that nobody had ever heard of. I was obviously a Wet Willie fan, but also a huge Grinderswitch fan.
Well you heard about Dru Lombar passing away?
Yeah, that was sad.
The last gig he did was with us at our Gritzfest last July around this time. It was days later he died. What a great guitar player. You and I are around the same age, and I was thinking about something you said earlier, that you kind of rebelled against your daddy’s country music. I did too. Did you find when you grew up that you were going back and just loving that music?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And years later I got to know all those guys. I was real close with Cash and Willie. We open for Willie a lot. And I loved him and Waylon and Kristofferson. All those guys. I’m real close with all of them. Yeah, when Cash died, it was a real bad week. we were playing on tour with Willie, and the last date of our tour was Farm Aid in Columbus, Ohio. Just before that we played Cleveland. And I got a call from Dickey Betts and he was playing Columbus right before we played down there. And he wanted to know if I wanted to come and jam with them. I was like, shit. Of course I wanted to. (Laughs) At the same time it scared the hell out of you. This was right after Dickey got out of the band, and he was out with his own band. He had Danny Toler on guitar. So me and the guys in my band went down and got on the bus with Dickey and hung out for a while, and he said “You gotta come up and play with us. What do you want to play on?” I said, “Gosh, what are y’all playing from The Allman Brothers? I can probably play one of those. I know ‘em pretty well. He started naming off a few and he named off “Southbound.” I said “I know “Southbound.” So I played drums on “Southbound.” That was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I was nervous as hell, but I did it.
I love Dickey, but I get a little intimidated around him sometimes. And Bonnie Bramlett had a quote in Gritz that Dickey himself loved. She said Dickey is two people- a cowboy and an indian. Being around the indian is fun, but the cowboy? Watch out! (Laughing) He and Toy Caldwell were my two favorite guitarists ever.
I saw Marshall Tucker in Memphis at the Midsouth Coliseum back in - it must have been ‘73 or ‘74. They were the headliners and the other two acts were The Outlaws and The Charlie Daniels Band. Of course you know the show was about five hours long. (Laughs) ‘Cause you know Marshall Tucker would start playing something like “24 Hours at a Time.” But man I loved that band. I just remember watching Toy play with his thumb like that, playing all of that crazy shit. I thought, if I could play guitar like that...but I’m not really a guitar player. I just play well enough to write my songs. I don’t dare play it next to the guys I play with. As a matter of fact, that night we played Columbus, Dickey said “Yeah, we got you a Marshall setup and a gold top up there ready for you.” I said Dickey, (Laughing) I’m not really a guitar player, man. He said “What do you play?” I said, “I play drums, really.” He said “Get back there.”
Phil Walden said something to me one time that was a pretty good quote about Dickey, he said “Ronnie Van Zant wasn’t afraid of anybody in the world except for Dickey Betts.” And he said “nobody made Dickey nervous except Toy Caldwell.” (Laughs) But I know Gregg and I know Dickey, but I never really knew Butch or the other guys.
Shifting gears. I am, like so many others, a huge fan of your film Slingblade. I understand the character of Karl Childers started out as a one-man play?
Yeah. Thanks. I came up with the character when I was working on a movie where I had like four or five lines. I just came up with it in my little cubby hole of a trailer. I started doing it at my theatre group every once in a while. They would have a night where people would do monologues or scenes or whatever.So I decided to see if they’d let me use the theatre on Monday nights when they are dark you know? I started doing the opening monologue from the movie. I didn’t have the girl that was interviewing me in the movie, so I did it as if the audience were the interviewer, you know. I did it as a part of a one-man show. There was that and other things. And I ended up doing it at The Tiffany Theatre up on Sunset Strip. That’s kind of how I was discovered, from those one-man shows. A casting director that later became a producer saw me and put me in a few things in the ‘80’s. It was small stuff but it still kind of got me on the road.
So Slingblade was first made as a short film?
Yeah, me and this other guy made it. But I never liked the way it was cast. The only one I put in the film was a friend of mine named J.T. Walsh. The rest of it, I thought, was a little miscast. So when we made the movie I got people to play those parts. The guy who played the administrator at the mental institution was Jimmy Hampton, who is a terrific actor. He directed me in an episode of Evening Shade.The Burt Reynolds show.
I was going to ask how you came to be on Evening Shade. I really loved that show. It was downright funny.
Yeah, it was a good show. I did three episodes of that one. Burt was real good to me, and the Thomassons, Harry Thomasson and Linda Bloodworth Thomasson put me on a small part to begin with, and I starred on it twice. The first time I went over there, I thought Burt just had a bunch of his friends over visiting. I had no idea so many big names were in the show. He had Charles Derning and Elizabeth Ashley, Anne Wedgeworth and Mary Lu Henner, Hal Holbrook and Ossie Davis. I was like, good grief man, all you guys are in the show? How much is the payroll on this thing? (Laughs)
Out of all the films you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
Well, it’s kind of hard for me to pick a favorite, because I tend to be different in every movie. If I were more like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper or John Wayne, who essentially played themselves, or Bogart, and there are still some today that are pretty much themselves - that’s one way to do it, you know. And there are people I grew up admiring like Alec Guiness and Lon Chaney, Sr.- people that change themselves for different movies. And of course, Robert Duvall was my mentor.
Oh yeah. One of my all time favorites. What was working with Duvall like?
Oh man. He taught me a whole lot, and I’d have to say that out of everybody, he was my mentor. The first thing I did with him was a film called The Stars Fell On Henrietta, which was about Texas oil men in the ‘30s. Not a lot of people saw that one but I had a supporting part in there. But Duvall was something else. If I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be like him. That’s why it’s a little hard to pick a favorite. I’ve even asked Duvall before what his favorite was, and he’ll start by saying “Well, there’s Tender Mercies. but then there’s Lonesome Dove, which he loved a lot, he was real fond of that - and when you start thinking about it it’s almost like when you’re having a birthday party and you say, well, I’ve got to invite so and so, and if I invite him I have to invite this one- so it’s like that. But I’d have to say Slingblade is the one closest to my heart, because that’s what really got me kicked off. I had written and starred in a movie called One False Move, about four or five years before Slingblade. And it’s kind of an unsung hero movie that got me started in the business. But Slingblade’s the one that made me a more public figure. So I’d say Slingblade, and a movie called A Simple Plan, was one of my favorites. And The Man Who Wasn't There, a Coen brothers film - and Monster’s Ball. And Bad Santa I always loved. I loved playing Davy Crocket in The Alamo too.
It must just be a blast to get to do that for a living.
Oh yeah, it really is. I am very lucky. I just made one called The Astronaut Farmer, it comes out the end of the year. It’s a thing for Warner Brothers.
No, this is my Jimmy Stewart movie. My Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think people are really going to like this movie. It really is like a Frank Cappara movie. it’s about an American hero. Really a dreamer, like all of us were coming up. Like any of us involved in movies or music, we’re all dreamers. It’s just a movie about a guy who had a dream and he just wasn’t gonna let anybody stop him. It’s pretty good. i’m real proud of that. I hope you’ll look for it.
I sure will. One of your films I recently got on DVD that I’d been waiting to see forever is Daddy and Them. We saw John Prine in concert about four years back, and he was talking about being in that movie.
What happened with that movie was this. I had directed All The Pretty Horses. And I got in such a fight with Miramax over it because they took it away and made their own cut of it, took all of our music out of it. Dan Lanois did the score for it, the same one who did Slingblade. It was probably the best score I’d ever heard. They said the music was too sparse, and they needed a big orchestra and all, so we had a big fight and they told me Daddy and Them could kiss their ass. (Laughs)
Even Andy (Griffith)? How could they say that about Andy? (Laughs)
Yeah I know, how could you. (Laughs) I always tell people, if I don’t have anything else in my legacy, I will probably go down in history as the only director who ever got Andy Griffith to say “cornhole.” (Laughter all around) Varney came up to me one day and told me that Andy asked what cornhole meant, and I told him to go ask you.
That was a good film. I really liked it.
Southerners really enjoy that film, because they recognize everybody in it.
I want to jump back to the music for a minute. I was really proud they put our Gritz review of your latest album on your website. Tell me a little about Hobo.
Well, first of all, I really appreciated the review. You know, I have that thing to overcome being an actor. A lot of people in the music business call me up to write songs with them. And Willie and Elvis Costello and folks want me to open up for them. But with the public, they are a little tough sometimes, and the critics. So when a writer like you gets it, it really means something to me. I really, really appreciate it.
You are quite welcome.
So I was up in Chicago making a movie called Ice Harvest with John Cussack...
Another good one. I hated to see you die in it though. The way you died. Very cold. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Oh yeah. That was something else. It wasn’t as cold as A Simple Plan though. (Laughs) But I wrote the song “Hobo” and a couple of the others while I was in the hotel making that movie. And I hadn’t even intended to make a record yet, but it just kind of came together. And I was talking to my mother on the phone one day about how hobos used to come to our back door in Alpine, and my grandmother would feed them. We in the South didn’t have what you call street people. But we had hobos. There’d be an old guy come through and sleep out in the woods behind the house for a few days with his bed roll and stuff you know. The ones that my grandmother really trusted, she’d let them come in and eat at the table with us.
And I started thinking that could be an interesting song, about a guy who’s like a street person now out in Santa Monica or somewhere, and he’s thinking about how his mother or grandmother used to feed people like him at the back door, and now he is one of them. So I just wrote that first song, and after writing three or four songs I realized I was writing something that had kind of a through-line, which was the pilgrimage to California, the great fronter, it’s still a frontier. People keep coming here all the time. it’s where the dreams are you know? So I wanted to write a song about all the hobos and gypsies and tramps and thieves that come out here to try and make something out of themselves. Most of the songs have something to do with that. And sonically it was probably our most solid record, simply because it has a real through-line sonically too. The records I’d made before that, I liked all of the songs individually, but as records we put too many different styles - we’d have a rock and roll song and then a country song and then a Pink Floyd sounding song all on one record, which you could do back in the ‘60’s but you can’t do now.
Everything has to be labeled and pigeon holed.
Exactly. Everything has to sound alike. They want every song to be the same song.Talking to kids these days, you can mention somebody who’s legendary, you could even mention The Allman Brothers to a kid and he wouldn’t know who you were talking about. And very few know who Hank Williams is. But you go to Japan and they know who Hank Williams is. You can find a 12 year old in Japan who knows who Hank Williams is.
Well I really liked Hobo. I said you sounded like a cross between Lou Reed and Bill Anderson.
(Laughs) I like that. I really liked that review.
Well I hate critics. The ones who say “Billy Bob can’t be a singer, he’s an actor.”
Yeah and the thing about it is, the prejudice doesn’t go in the opposite direction. If a musician wants to be in a movie people don’t say anything about it. It’s some kind of deal where people say. “you don’t get to be a rock star too.” I had one critic slam me and later on he apologized to me. He said he was so jealous of me. He said he really liked the record but he didn’t write a good review of it. He actually apologized and said, “to tell you the truth I’m a frustrated musician, and the fact that you’ve done all this good movies that I love, and you’re married to Angelina Jolie.” (Laughs) I said, man I’m sorry. I’m just a guy from Arkansas.
I remember when your first album Private Radio came out. I loved the song you had on there called “Angelina.” The lyrics were great, about walking into a wall.
And all of that stuff was true. When she met me the first time -well, we’d met each other before but we never got in close contact - she got on an elevator with me at the same time, and she literally walked into the wall. (Laughs) I was kind of a movie hero of here or something. And we had the same manager, we still do. I’ve been with him for 14 years and she's been with him for 11 or 12 years. He said when he first signed her, he said look, I’ve got this young girl I just signed. She’s gorgeous, and she’s Jon Voight’s daughter. He said, the two of you are just alike, and I really want you to work together, but the thing is, I’m afraid to introduce y’all because I know you’ll get married.
Really? Crazy man. So he knew.
Yep. He called it. And she and I are still good friends. She’s a great gal. I’m always rootin’ for her and vice-versa. We keep in touch.
So I understand you have a girlfriend now and a little baby?
Yes, my girlfriend Connie and I have a baby named Bella, and she’s almost two. She’ll be two September 22. And this kid is just the light of my life.
I saw her picture. What a doll. And you call her pumpkin?
Yeah, I call her pumpkin, but “Boo Boo” is her main nickname. This kid is as funny as anybody you ever saw in your life. She’s hilarious. She was real fat when she was a little baby. She’s growing out of it now, she’s getting taller and slimmer. But she’s still got those cheeks.
You were a heavy baby yourself.
Oh good gosh yeah. When I was seven and a half months old they put me in the newspaper in Clark County, Arkansas because I was so fat. I weighed 30 pounds, as much as a first grader. By the time I was two I was skinny and stayed skinny the rest of the time. I gained weight on purpose one time for the movie U-Turn, and it was a hell of a thing getting it off. These days I try to stay between 155 and 160 which is about my normal weight. It’s just too hard to go up and down that way.
Yeah. You remember Lowell George of Little Feat, he went way up and down several times, and that probably contributed to his death.
Oh yeah. You know, I know those guys, Little Feat. They are one great band. I’ve opened for them before. I love them. They did a show in D.C., a 30th anniversary of Waiting for Columbus, and they got a lot of other people to come in and do their songs. Warren Haynes was there, and Jimmy Herring, Jackson Browne, Levon Helm and me and Joe Ely and a bunch of people. And Little Feat’s rhythms are so weird, so way back behind the beat. So when they asked me what songs I wanted to do, I picked “Willin’” and “Dixie Chicken.” (Laughs) We all sang backgrounds on “Oh Atlanta.” I remember standing there next to Jackson Browne at sound check, and I said, man Jackson, I just don’t know where to come in on the songs sometimes. He said yeah I know what you mean. I told Paul Barrere that and he told me to just watch the neck of his guitar and he would signal me when to come in.
I know you need to go, so how about giving us a little run down of what all you have coming up, movies, music and stuff.
Well, I have this Astronaut Farmer film coming out at the end of the year with Warner Brothers. That’s me and Virginia Madsen who plays my wife, and Bruce Dern. Bruce Willis has a cameo thing in it. The first movie that’s coming out is a film I did for the Weinsteins company called School for Scoundrels. It’s pretty funny. That comes out September 29. And then sometime in the spring, April or May, I have a movie for New Line coming out called Mr. Woodcock, which is funnier than hell. I play a gym teacher who is like your worst nightmare of a gym teacher. Like Bad Santa in the gym, without the drinking. That[‘s me and Susan Sarandon and Sean William Scott. I’m starting Robert Altman’s new movie in September, which is untitled. But that’s a dream of mine to work with Altman.
In the mean time I’m making my next record, and we’ve got 30 songs demoed. My co-writer, he’s one of my guitar players, Brad Davis, he comes from the bluegrass world. He plays with Sam Bush and Earl Scruggs - when we start writing, all of our influences come together, and we realize we’ve written 30 songs, but we’ve written about ten songs each for three different style albums. We don’t pay attention to how we are writing, we just write what we feel like at the time. So we’ve got two songs we could probably sell to Judas Priest. And two or three that Ralph Stanley could probably do. And a couple of Waylon sounding things and some Tom Petty sounding things. We’re gonna write five or six more and look at ‘em and make our next three albums. We can’t get a sequence so far to get one solid album out of it. There’s one song we did, I always wanted to write a song about a stalker that gets on the internet a lot. Like a dangerous kind of stalker. But I didn’t want to write it about a guy being obsessed with an actress like Angie or Julia Roberts, the obvious ones. So the song is called “Jennifer Tilly.” (Laughs) I just wanted to warn you, it’s a little dark.
You’re talking to the right guy. I’m the one who reads Stephen King novels for breakfast, and Batman: The Dark Knight and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn comic books.
That’s funny, because the very last thing I say at the end of the song is, “now where did I put my comic books.” (Laughs).
Yeah. I hear you brother.
It’s pretty heavy. (Laughs)
Thanks for the interview Billy Bob. I look forward to meeting you in person.
Well, we will soon. And we’ll talk again soon. Thanks Michael.
Billy Bob and Karl image created in Photoshop by Michael Buffalo Smith