Interview by Joseph Hett
Billy Bob Thornton of The Boxmasters recently spoke with Music Recall Magazine. Check out MRM’s exclusive interview with Thornton below.
See The Boxmasters this Friday, September 11 in Newberry, SC at the Newberry Opera House. Tickets are still available and can be purchased HERE!
MRM: Who were your musical influences growing up?
Thornton: Well, I was heavily influenced by the British invasion – The Beatles, The Animals, Gerry and The Pacemakers and all of that back in the day. And Elvis Presley and all of the music from Sun Records like Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. So I was kind of all over the place. And in the mid-‘60s I kind of became heavily influenced by kind of avant-guard rock like the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. My musical tastes were all over the place. I also listened to people like Les Montgomery and Ornette Coleman, the jazz player and saxophonist. So I listened to everything. I was one of those music geeks who read every liner note and all of that kind of thing. And in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s I was heavily influenced by the late-‘60s L.A. rock – country art sound – like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. And I think it really all culminated into sort of a Memphis sound. You know, you take the British invasion and The Byrds and become a big fan of Big Star, Alex Chilton – he was with The Box Tops. Pretty much all of it. But Big Star out of Memphis is a big influence on us.
MRM: Was Southern rock important to you?
Thornton: Oh, yeah. I was a big Southern rock fan. My favorite album of all time is The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore East.” And my favorite Marshall Tucker is probably their two-record-set, which is called “Where We All Belong.” I always loved that song “24 Hours At A Time” – that was a big song for me. Loved the Southern rock sound. Loved Skynyrd and Grinderswitch and Wet Willie and all of them.
MRM: When did you first realize you wanted to get into the music business?
Thornton: Well, let’s see. As early as probably nine years old. Before we could afford instruments, we used to pretend we were the Dave Clark Five. We would take brooms and mops and pretend we were singing the songs. We would go into my buddy’s back porch and just pretend we were playing with these brooms and do Dave Clark Five songs, of course, a capella. And then we discovered the joy of making a guitar out of a cigar box. We used to write our little songs from that. You probably can’t print the name of the first song I ever wrote. You know those little round things at a circus that an elephant puts their up foot on? It’s kind of like a little barrel looking thing. I had a toy one of those, and it had pictures of the circus on it. And I stood on that and played on a little Roy Rogers guitar that my parents had gotten me. My uncle had taught me like a D-chord or something. I would bang on that little guitar and stand on that circus toy, and I sang a song called “Cat Shit On A Rat Box.”And I don’t even know where that came from. I wasn’t but three or four. I guess I heard my dad say stuff like that. (Laughs) Like I said, not fit for print but still a funny thing.
MRM: Can you tell is about your time working as a roadie?
Thornton: When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I worked for a sound company. So I wasn’t a personal roadie for any particular band. But as a result, we got to work for a lot of different bands. We did shows for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Brewer and Shipley, Pure Prairie League, BW Stevenson, Lighthouse – that’s a horn band out of Canada. A lot of shows we did for people over the years. So I got to roadie on a lot of big shows – Black Oak Arkansas, people like that. My band as a teenage and in my twenties opened for Black Oak quite a few times and Humble Pie and a lot of people.
MRM: Can you tell us about the time you were in a ZZ Top tribute band?
Thornton: Yes, we were playing at a club called Cardi’s in Houston. And a guy who used to work for ZZ Top’s organization came to our show that night. And at the time I was in a band called Nothin’ Doin’. And this guy saw us, we were a three piece band – I was playing drums at the time. He came back after the show, and he said, “You guys sound just like ZZ Top. How would you like to be a ZZ Top tribute band?” This was in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, somewhere in there. And we said, “What does that mean?” Because back then they didn’t have them like they have tribute bands now. And he said, “Well, I’ll put it to you this way. You go out and try to look as much like them as you can and play their songs.” And we said, “What do we get out of that?” He said, “What are you making tonight?” We said, “$350.” He said, “How’d you like to make $1,500 a night?” And we said, “We’d like that very much.” And so we did that for a couple of years.
MRM: I’m assuming that was before they had the long beards?
Thornton: Well, they had beards, but they weren’t that long yet.
MRM: What was your favorite ZZ Top song to cover?
Thornton: I loved playing “Just Got Paid.” I believe that was our favorite back in those days. Because “Rio Grande Mud” was my favorite record of theirs. And everybody loved playing “La Grange” and all of those songs. You know when you hear a song constantly on the radio it can kind of wear thin on you. Since then, we’ve opened for them several times. I’ve known those guys for 30 years. They’re real close with us. They’re real Boxmasters fans, which is great. But another record of theirs is “Deguello” – we loved that record. We used to start our show with – we would go from “I Thank You” into “Waiting On The Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” We played a couple of the more obscure, well not obscure, but ones that weren’t top hits. We used to do “Pearl Necklace” and “Party On The Patio” and some of those.
MRM: Do you have any music related tattoos?
Thornton: I have the magic mushroom tattoo on my calf. Just like the Allman Brothers all did.
MRM: If you could have a dream jam with any musician/band past or present, who would it be?
Thornton: Oh, gosh, let’s see. There are a couple. I’d love to jam with maybe Eric Burden, if he could get the Animals back together or War or Greg Allman probably. I did play drums with Dickey Betts one night in Columbus, Ohio on a song when I went and saw him. I played “Southbound” with his solo band.
MRM: I think you have said something like music ended in the mid-‘70s. What did you mean by that?
Thornton: I think the heyday of music was from about 1955 to 1975. In other words, rock and roll has already been invented and everybody’s just rehashing it. I don’t know if there will ever be a new version of rock and roll. They have invented a lot of different kinds of music. Technopop to disco to pop. But punk really came out of rock and roll though. I don’t know where the hell technopop came from. I’m convinced that a robot did it.
MRM: Do you miss progressive free form radio from the glory days of radio?
Thornton: Yes, absolutely I miss that. And when I was a kid, rock and roll radio stations incorporated all of it. In other words, you would hear James Taylor and Black Sabbath on the same station. Now everything has become compartmentalized and have a million different charts. If they don’t know what you are, kind of like The Boxmasters, they put you on Americana. That’s just sort of the way it is. There are a few if you have satellite radio – there are some stations where you can still get that. From Deep Tracks, our buddy Jim Ladd has a show high in the Hollywood Hills there on Deep Tracks. Jim plays whatever he wants to, which is great.
MRM: Do you prefer headlining in an intimate venue or opening for someone in a bigger concert hall?
Thornton: You know there’s a thrill to both things. We love being the headliner in smaller clubs and bigger rock and roll clubs and theatres. Because you get that rush of being the headliner where they are there to see you. Then there’s a huge thrill of being an opening act in an arena too. But they feel different, but they both are really thrilling. But we are not choosey, we like both things. But we are always really honored to open for people that we admire. And for doing it in front of thousands of people is quite a rush.
MRM: How did you end up forming The Boxmasters? And recruiting members?
Thornton: Well, J.D. and I were just working on one of my solo records that Teddy actually had played on too. Teddy has been playing for me a long time, even on my solo stuff. J.D. was doing some engineering on this record, and I was asked to do a song for a television show. The band wasn’t together; we were all spread out in different places doing different things. J.D. cut the song with me. We liked the song. We did two very experimental albums to start with. We just combined hillbilly music with the British invasion and kind of sang it in an overtly kind of hillbilly way and played it very simply. And we took songs that you’d never expect to sound hillbilly and did it that way. Like Mott The Hoople songs, The Turtles and a lot of stuff. And wrote some original songs, a great number of them were humorous songs. Then after that, we decided that if this band is going to be a real thing we’re gonna keep going. And then we started sounding like we sound, which is reflective of the new record “Somewhere Down The Road.” As well as “Providence,” which is available on the website only, which is pretty much what we sound like when we play natural.
MRM: How would you compare your solo work to The Boxmasters style of music?
Thornton: Well, Boxmasters style of music is more jangle pop of the late ‘60s. My solo records tend to be more singer-songwriter kind of moody stuff kind of inspired by Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and people like that.
MRM: Do you play drums and sing at the same time while performing live?
Thornton: When we play live we actually have guys that go out with us. On the records it’s just me and Ted and J.D. So we make the records ourselves. And I play all the drums on the records. But when we play, I am actually up front. So we have a drummer as well as bass player and an extra guitarist. So there are six of us onstage, but really three of us make the records. We make a lot of racket so we have to have everybody up there.
MRM: How special was it to play the legendary Grand Ole Opry with The Boxmasters?
Thornton: Well, it was really nerve racking, we were nervous to play there to tell you the truth. We got out there, and you don’t get a sound check. They just kind of throw you out there, and you do two or three songs and then you’re off. It was an honor to play there. But it was also really daunting to be there at such a famous place. So we were honored and nervous all at the same time.
MRM: Can you tell us about the new album “Somewhere Down The Road”?
Thornton: It’s a two record set. And the first side is the more sort of like I’ve said is jangling rock and roll of the late ‘60s. And the second side is the more dark and moody story songs. Let’s put out a two record set. So that’s pretty much what the record is. We play quite a few new songs from the record live. We probably play five or six from the first side and like three or so off of the second side. And this record – like I was telling you about – “Providence,” which is on the website only, we do three songs off of that. We rarely do cover songs, but when we do it’s usually something that’s a little more obscure. We cover a Beau Brummels song from the mid-‘60s called “Turn Around.”
MRM: What’s the ultimate goal with The Boxmasters?
Thornton: We just love to record. We love to tour. So we are just going to keep going. We record a lot. So we’ve got a lot of records stacked up that are ready to go. And we are going to be putting those up on the website. Because our label can’t put a bunch of records out in a year. Usually they just focus on one. We’re gonna keep going keep recording and keep putting these records out. And we’re going to make the ones that are stacked up available on the website, usually at a reduced price for the fans. We don’t have millions of fans like a Bruce Springsteen or somebody like that. But the fans we have – we have a great cult following. And we want to do things for them. We love our fans.
MRM: What can fans expect when The Boxmasters roll into town on Friday, September 11 at the historic Newberry Opera House in Newberry, SC?
Thornton: We’re anxious to get there. I mean playing an opera house is quite an honor. So we’ll keep it clean out of the respect for the opera house. (Laughs)
Also check out our interview with fellow Boxmaster J.D. Andrew HERE