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Billy Bob Thornton Talks About The New Boxmasters Album

by Michael Buffalo Smith

Billy Bob Thornton is the new Lon Chaney. The new “man of a thousand faces.” And I’m not just talking about his movies. His music has shown other sides of this complex artist as well, whether it is singing country on a June Carter tribute or rocking out with Styx on record, or his own string of totally original solo albums. And then there’s the straight up rock of his live shows. Which leads us to Bill Bob “Bud” Thornton’s latest creation, The Boxmasters.

Last year, The Boxmasters opened the shows for Billy Bob’s solo set, and the crowds ate it up with a spoon. Then came the Boxmasters Christmas single, and their take on the theme song for Showtime’s hit series Weeds.

Now The Boxmasters present their debut album, a fantastic two record set to be released June 10th that shows the band’s true versatility, with one disc of all originals, and one disc of select cover tunes. The band is set for another hot summer tour, and have even recorded nineteen new songs for their next album. These youngsters are chompin’ at the bit.

We spoke with Bud Thornton about the band, the album, and global domination.

What made you decide to do a double album for the Boxmasters debut?
Well, we knew that we wanted to do some cover songs, and we didn’t want to have an album with ten or eleven songs and half of them be covers. So we thought, you know what, they used to make double albums, let’s make one. And the people at Vanguard are kind enough that they are actually putting out a limited edition double vinyl album in addition to the double CD. I think they are only pressing 500 on vinyl. And the thing about it is, a lot of people are starting to turn back to vinyl. A lot of people are getting into vinyl collecting now.

You know I still love the sound of analog vinyl better than the digital CD.

Oh, I do too. We got our first test pressing of the LP the other day and we listened to it on my shitty record player upstairs, and I gotta tell you Michael, I liked the record better on that, even with my crappy speakers, because it reminded me of when I first listened to records.

Yeah. It just doesn’t sound right without a few pops and scratches. It doesn’t have the same.... (Billy laughs)...You know what I mean, hell we’re the same age.
(Laughing) I saw some pictures of me and you the other day from the House of Blues.

Yeah, they were showing me some pictures from the tour and I said, “I know him.” (Laughs)

Ain’t you lucky? (Laughs) Man that was too much fun. I look forward to seeing you on this tour too.
Absolutely. I can’t wait. Well, it’s a lot of fun. Like Unknown Hinson says, “It don’t take no talent to play that rawk.”

He was at the Handlebar here about a month ago.
He’s playing here tomorrow night. He was out here a couple of months ago and came over to the house. Danny’s a good boy.

How did The Boxmasters come about?

A Canadian TV producer approached me who wanted me to do a cover of a Hank Williams song for his TV show. He wanted me to do “Lost Highway.” We were working on the final mix of Beautiful Door at the time, and we had hired this assistant engineer named J.D. Andrew through Lisa Roy.

J.D. was down here helping us with the final mix, and I said well crap, the band is not in town and we can’t really cut this song unless I get some other people to play on it with me. So I said “J.D., how good are you on guitar?” He said, “Oh, I do okay.” So I said, why don’t you cut this Hank Williams song with me tonight? He kind of raised his eyebrow. So we sat here and cut it, just the two of us,  and when we were done with it, we liked the sound of it. And I said, you know what’s funny about this is that it doesn’t sound like just a country song. It’s got kind of a real sixties vibe to it. And I said, for instance, listen to this - and I played him “Yesterday’s Gone” by Chad and Jeremy.

I had been noticing that, with that song, if you really stripped it down and took away the kind of sappy vocals and everything, it’s really a hillbilly song. So I said, let’s cut that, and we did. And that’s what gave me the idea to have a sixties pop version of a hillbilly band. We would dress in the mod suits and do the whole thing like you saw in Myrtle Beach. So after that we cut two or three more covers and then I wrote a song that I called “The Work of Art.” That was the first Boxmasters song written.

After that we just kept cutting until we had so dang many songs, we decided to do the double record set. And we moved from Universal to Vanguard. That’s the label that I wanted to be on since I was a kid. I always loved that abel. They had classical jazz, blues, folk, everything. The people there are real cool, and the label’s run by Kevin Welk, who’s Lawrence Welk’s grandson. Kevin is a great guy, and he totally got the music and he went ape shit over the Boxmasters, and that’s kind of the way the whole thing came about. We recently got back from South By Southwest and J.D. and I didn’t have anything to do because I don’t start another movie for a while, and we couldn’t sit still. So we’ve already got nineteen songs for the next double record.

Wow. Amazing. Already in the can?

Oh, yeah. I mean we just went nuts. I think this may even be better than the other one. But what we wanted to do was, if you’ll notice, it goes from beginning to end without stopping with all that transitional music. We wanted to do a hillbilly version of a Sgt. Pepper or a Tommy or whatever. It’s like one continuous piece. We’re gonna do that on the next one too.

That was very cool. I notice in the publicity pictures there are only three of you guys, but when I saw you live there was a stage full.
Yes, there are three Boxmasters. We created it and all. We really made the record. A couple of the guys from my solo band helped out, of course Brad Davis and Teddy. But essentially it was me and J.D. and Mike Butler, who was a friend of J.D.’s. When we first cut the songs, J.D. doesn’t play lead, and I asked if he knew anyone, and he said yeah, that he knew another engineer who played. So we really formed the band. But when we play live, because we put a lot of stuff on the record, we have to have all the other instruments. So the way it works is The Boxmasters are the three of us, but when we play live we have more players. Kind of like Steely Dan. (Laughs)

Like Steely Dan, exactly. (Laughs) Where did the name come from?
Well, the polite way to say it...  (Laughing)

(Laughing) Uh oh, I was afraid of this.

When I was growing up down in Arkansas, we used to call a guy who was kind of a playboy a boxmaster. And that’s really what it means. But sometimes, it depends on who I am explaining it to. Sometimes I have to say, you know, it’s like a UPS guy, or somebody who’s good at packing things.

Which is basically the same thing. (More Laughs)
(Laughing) Exactly. 

How would you describe the music of The Boxmasters?
It’s combining sixties pop rock with sixties hillbilly, is really what it is. Kind of like The Beatles or The Stones with Buck Owens.

I’d pay good money to see that.

I hope so. (Laughs)

When you tour this summer will it be the solo band and The Boxmasters together again like last summer?
Yeah, it will be two shows. We’re gonna do the same thing. We have a new bass player going out with us, Darrell Johnson. Darrell plays with Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois. Darrell actually played organ and bass on the Slingblade soundtrack, so I have know him for quite a while.

Are there any plans for a hove video DVD of your music?

This year on tour we are planning on shooting one. Probably at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin.

What’s next for you musically?
We’ll do the tour, and we’re almost finished with the next Boxmasters record. I’ll probably do another solo record after we get off the tour. And then I’m doing another movie starting in the middle of October. But I plan to record the solo album prior to the movie.

What about movies?
I have one coming out called Eagle Eye. Other than that, there’s the movie we’re gonna do in the fall called  Citizen Betts, and that will be the first time in, gosh, nine years since I directed.

Wow, it’s been that long since All The Pretty Horses?

Sure has.

I heard something about a Boxmasters music video.
Yeah, we actually did two. We did “The Poor House” and we did “I’ll Give You a Ring.” We did them for The Dell Lounge. They aren’t like story videos where we’re walking around and some girl is in a house. These were shot on the stage where we rehearsed at SXSW with our backdrop. Our idea was to just do a performance video as if we were on Hullabaloo or one of those shows, and we cut in stock footage of audiences from the sixties.

(Laughing) That’s great.

It’s pretty funny. I think you’ll dig ‘em. There’s no microphones and the guitars aren’t plugged in. (Laughs)

That’s the way it ought to be. A very sixties thing. I used to love to watch American Bandstand when the group is up there lip syncing and the guys aren’t even trying to fake chords on their guitars.
Oh, absolutely. That’s the best.

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