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Billy Bob turns on his "Private Radio"

By Joel Bernstein, October 2001

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Thornton wrote all but two of the cuts on his album (with Stuart or someone else). How does writing a song compare to writing a movie? "Writing a song just doesn't take as long. It's more like writing a scene in a movie. A scene for me is almost like automatic writing. I'm not a construction artist. I don't think much. I get inspirations and write them down. Most of my songs took a few minutes. I wrote 'Slingblade' (the movie) in nine days."

He has more of a problem with the music than lyrics. "I'm not a guitar player. Any melodies I come up with I have to hum them. I like to say that I can start every Neil Young song, but I can't finish them. (Marty and I) would sit around together. Sometimes he would add lines, sometime melodies."

The same was true with other co-writers. "With 'Angelina,' (a song on the album about his wife) I wrote the verses and bridge in a few minutes. Randy Scruggs came up with the chorus."

"'Angelina' and 'Your Blue Shadow' are (the songs about my wife). The rest of it is not about me" (except for one odd verse about wearing his wife's panties).

Thornton and Jolie are the frequent subjects of an overly inquisitive media. "Is it annoying? Yeah. I really don't even read the stuff. Sometimes I'll get a message from a friend who thinks I need to know, but I don't need to know. Some stuff, you read it, and it hurts your feelings. When they write hurtful stuff, it's not good. I always thought the whole thing about life is you're supposed to wish the best for people. I thought that was the point. Evidently it's not."

Other songs are inspired by people he knew. "'Walk Of Shame' I wrote for a friend of mine who works as a production manager in the movies, but used to be a lawyer. She once mentioned taking a walk of shame, and I thought that was a cool way of expressing it."

"That Mountain," about a woman who spent her entire life in a small holler and fantasized about crossing the mountain to see the trains she only heard, "is self-explanatory. It was told to me by (the late actor) Jim Varney about his great-grandmother. It's all true except for the last verse, which is my embellishment."

"Starlight Lounge" is a co-write with Dwight Yoakam. "I was in the middle of writing it when he came by to visit. It was around midnight. We both stayed up late."

Listening to Thornton's album recalled the late Robert Mitchum. Both actors have a limited singing voice, but the same quiet strength that made them a force in movies overpowers those limitations. Mitchum's music career included a Top Ten country single ("Little Old Wine Drinker Me"), a rock 'n' roll classic ("Ballad Of Thunder Road") and perhaps the all-time most chillingly sinister rendition of a gospel song (in the movie "Night Of The Hunter".)

However, Mitchum wasn't writing most of his songs and wasn't making a personal statement with his music in the way that Thornton is with this disc.

Even the two cover songs Thornton chose are personal. "He Was a Friend Of Mine," about JFK's assassination, mirrors The Byrds' version. "That was for the election, with the president being elected by lawyers. The Byrds were great. They were the American Beatles."

"Lost Highway." the Leon Payne song made famous by Hank Williams (and for which the label is named), closes the album. "I recorded it originally for a Hank Williams tribute album. The head of the project decided he didn't want me singing on it and (said) I should do a spoken word thing. I told him I didn't need help in the talking business. The song was appropriate (for my album) because the record is a lot of dark songs, and this ties it together. It says 'You don't have to go down the wrong road to save yourself'."

Although a number of tracks on Thornton's album feature recitations, the only fully spoken track is the 9 1/2 minute "Beauty At The Back Door," which precedes "Lost Highway" and requires a very attentive listener. "That's the height of the Southern Gothic thing like Erskine Caldwell or William Faulkner. It's what it's like growing up in the South."

That also sums up Thornton's feelings about the album as a whole. "(It) sort of reflects what I really want to do. It's been described as Southern Gothic. It's been compared to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, but it's inspired by Johnny Cash in terms of the nature of the songs."

In the end, however, Thornton still has his other career. "I'm known as an actor, not as a movie star. I do what I feel like doing. So far, I've made the right choices. People respect me as an actor, and that's the only place I want respect. I don't need a big paycheck that bad."

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