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Billy Bob Thornton's Musical Roots

Posted: Apr 01, 2009

I knew Billy Bob Thornton and I were going to hit it off. I had been a fan of his movies and his music for many a year, and I had read many accounts of his love for good ol’ Southern fried music. Of course, the  deal was sealed during our very first phone conversation when, five minutes into our interview, Billy Bob asked me, “Do you know who you sound like?” I said no, I didn’t. He replied “Johnny Sandlin.” I laughed and told him I took that as a major compliment, and just wish i could produce like “The Duck.” Sandlin is of course one of my true heroes and a man I consider a real friend. As is Billy Bob.

Another thing he said during our first conversation really got my attention too.

“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.”

Me too.

Billy Bob was a musician long before he became an actor, which is why it really gets in my craw when people say, “These Hollywood actors all try to become musicians too.” Well, some do. Some do okay. One time Billy Bob told me -

“...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.”

Like I said though, Billy Bob was a player first. The guy has serious street cred. He played in various bands, including one of the most successful ZZ Top cover bands ever.

He grew up loving all sorts of music, but none more than Southern Rock. Maybe that’s what led to Capricorn’s Phil Walden becoming his manager for a while. His all time favorite band is The Allman Brothers Band, and he has spoken many times about his love of Bonnie Bramlett, The Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Grinderswitch, Cowboy and so many others.

I loved all of his solo albums. He has worked with everyone from Marty Stuart on down the line and has appeared on tribute records for Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon, among others. During one of our conversations Billy told me about how excited he was one night when Dickey Betts invited him to sit in with Great Southern.

“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.”

And he went on to say -

“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.”

A couple of years ago Billy Bob introduced us to a new musical endeavor called The Boxmasters, a project he put together with world class producer/musician J.D. Andrew and guitar wizard Mike Butler. The resulting band defied classification. They were a cross between country, or as Billy says, “hillbilly,” and ‘60’s British invasion. They became a melting pot of Billy Bob, J.D. and Mike’s influences. Everything from The Dave Clark Five to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mel Tillis to Mott The Hoople, Willie Nelson to The Beatles.

Their debut record
was a double album featuring one disc of all original music and one disc of covers. It’s a formula they are repeating with Modbilly, their third album, due to drop April 21st. Did I say third album? Yep, The holidays gave us Christmas Cheer, a mixed bag of cool Christmas music, both traditional songs re-(box)mastered, and originals like “My Dreams of Christmas.”

The Boxmasters are currently on tour with Willie Nelson, and the summer will find them sharing the stage with Billy Bob Thornton and his solo band, who look a lot like The Boxmasters, well, except for the suits and ties. I saw them in both 2007 and 2008, and it is more fun than barrel full of tap dancing monkeys.  And don't forget, their new CD comes out this month!

I do feel a real kinship with Billy Bob. He loves music as much as I do, and he is all about preserving the history, legacy and memory of people like Duane Allman, Toy and Tommy Caldwell, Ronnie Van Zant, Leon Wilkeson, Hughie Thomasson and Billy Powell. Sure, he’s one hell of an actor, writer and director, but he is also a man filled with music. A guy I am blessed to know and call friend. Rock on, Billy Bob. And...

Keep it Real. Keep it Southern.

Enter our Boxmasters contest and meet Billy Bob and the band!

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lulasuzanna says...

BTW, If the Boxmasters haven't yet -- they've just gotta play the Cain's Ballroom sometime. Perfect for it.

lulasuzanna says...

This may sound a little crazy, but having grown up partly in Oklahoma -- Does anyone else hear just a twinge of Leon Russell influence in this? Not the full-out Russell sound, just the Okie hint of it. Whatever it is, it's GREAT stuff.

billybobgirl says...

Great article! Billy Bob is an awesome musician. Some people just don'y get it. Their loss. We love him!

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