Billy Bob turns on his "Private Radio" – October 2001
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Billy Bob turns on his "Private Radio"  Print

By Joel Bernstein, October 2001

Billy Bob Thornton - actor, screenwriter, director, and now recording artist. Thornton has just released his first album ("Private Radio" on Lost Highway). It's a disc of mostly original songs, done in a style that flows naturally from Thornton's screen persona, but it has nonetheless run afoul of the cultural-pollination police, who do not believe actors should be allowed to make albums.

The outspoken Thornton is a little surprised, however, by the identity of some of the biggest naysayers.

"Critics are okay. The people who've really disappointed me (in their reaction) are certain musicians, especially in Nashville. To them, I say 'Stop fucking calling me about getting in my movies then.' There are a lot of musicians and sports figures who get into movies on their name, and they're really shitty actors."

Thornton makes clear he's not talking about all of them. "I put Dwight Yoakam into a movie and got his acting career going, and he's good. I just worked with Sean Combs (rapper Puff Daddy) in a movie. He was fine. I didn't say 'No. Stay away!'"

Thornton says, "My record is honest. It's not a lot of bells and whistles. I didn't bring in all my famous pals. If (these musicians) don't want me making a record, they shouldn't be trying to get into movies. If I'd put the record out under the name 'Larry Brown,' nobody would give a shit."

"I played music all my life and then got into movies. I would still play music off and on. On movie sets, I jam with the crew. Most of my friends are in music. I don't hang out with actors much."

The record gets some instant country music credibility with the presence of Marty Stuart as producer and musician. "Marty came to the set of 'Primary Colors' to talk about doing some music. Later on, at Gene Autry's 90th birthday party, I was at a table with him and Dwight. When I started making this record with a guy I know from Arkansas, I called Marty. He brought in some musicians and helped out."

At that time, there was no label in mind for the album.

"I didn't want to sign with a label just on my name. Luke Lewis (head of Mercury Nashville and Lost Highway) heard some songs I was writing with Marty, and he really liked them. That showed me he was serious when he wanted to put me on a label with people like Lucinda Williams."

Thornton spent his early years as a musician, not an actor. "I was in a soul group in Arkansas called 'Hotlanta.' We cut a couple of records in Muscle Shoals. I was the drummer in a group called 'Tres Hombres,' named after the ZZ Top song, and then I sang in a group in Houston called 'Nothing Doing'. Our success in those days was opening for some big-name acts. We played outdoor festivals in front of 20,000 or 30,000 people."

"I just kind of fell into movie-making. I just kind of lived. All of my stuff comes from that. Someone asked me if I ever took a creative-writing course. I said 'What?' My writing's just kind of observations. I used to be sort of a hobo. We'd catch freight trains at night for kicks. Most of my traveling days were spent on a Greyhound bus or going from place to place with someone I just met."

At some point, Thornton's wanderings brought him to Los Angeles. "I just came to LA to see what would happen. I had a pretty shitty time in LA for years. I got very sick and hospitalized (caused by malnutrition.) The few people I knew I was too embarrassed to tell I was that down-and-out. Eventually, I started getting parts on TV shows."

Thornton says his first big break came in the late '80's when he was a regular on a TV show called "The Outsiders."

"This was on Fox, pretty early in their history. It lasted one season, but I made some money."

We spoke to Thornton Sept. 19. Eight days earlier, as the world revolved around terrorist attacks, he had been in Japan on a press junket.

"My wife (actress Angelina Jolie) and I had gone with our traveling companions to a traditional Japanese dinner. When we got back to the hotel, a guy who works with us met us on the lobby and told us. He's a jokester, and I thought 'He's messing with us. What a weird joke.' Then I saw in his eyes he was serious. We went upstairs and put on CNN. We couldn't get a flight out, so for three or four days we just watched the news. When we did leave the room, people were staring at us, and you could tell it wasn't for the usual reasons. It was a sad respect. 'Those poor Americans.'"

In the midst of our conversation, Thornton suddenly blurts out "They banned 'Imagine' as inappropriate! It's the opposite of inappropriate." Apparently with one eye on a TV set, Thornton is reacting to a list put out by a major radio chain of songs that may upset people in the wake of the tragedy.

The discussion leads back to films. "What's ruined the movies is those damned test screenings they have. They'll chop your movie up until everyone is okay with it. No one can be offended."

Asked how much control he gets on his own projects, Thornton says "I get director's cut on small movies like 'Slingblade.' When they give you money, like on 'All The Pretty Horses, it's different. I got final cut up to two hours, but that's a three-hour movie. They knew that going in. It's an epic. It had to be cut. I'm happy with it. It's a good movie, it just wasn't all of it. (Having to cut to under two hours) was the difference between a good movie and a great movie. These days, whoever has the money to put up the most posters and most ads on TV, that's who wins the opening weekend. And that's all most of them care about."

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