CHICAGO (Reuters) - He is an acclaimed actor and Oscar winner for writing the movie “Sling Blade” but most of the time Billy Bob Thornton would rather be pursuing his first love: music.
Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters, releases its first album on Tuesday, a dual CD with one disc of original songs written by Thornton and second with covers of the likes of Mott the Hoople, the Louvin Brothers, the Who and Chad and Jeremy.
Thornton, credited as W.R. “Bud” Thornton partly to distinguish from his movie star status, released four solo albums between 2001 and 2007, but it is this latest incarnation — as drummer, singer and songwriter for the Boxmasters — that he thinks brings him closest to his true calling.
“I’ve always been committed to music first,” Thornton told Reuters. “It just so happened that I accidentally became a movie star. So it’s really more like I use the movies to keep me from going broke between records.”
The 52-year-old native of Hot Springs, Arkansas, has been playing drums since he was 9 and as a young man he kicked around the fringes of the music industry, including a stint as a roadie for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the mid-1970s.
He remembers when his mother gave him his first album of his very own — the soundtrack to Elvis Presley’s 1958 movie “King Creole.” His favorite record of all time is the Allman Brothers’ 1971 “At Fillmore East.” Among his unfulfilled ambitions are to write a song someday with two of his idols, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine.
His Boxmasters bandmates include J.D. Andrew, who co-wrote several songs, and Mike Butler, whose blazing guitar licks pepper the album. Thornton describes the band’s music as “Hillbilly British Invasion” and they plan to hit the road and tour the United States this summer, Thornton said.
“If you take the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Dirt Band and Mike Nesmith and the Monkees, mix them up with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and Webb Pierce and Del Reeves, that’s what the Boxmasters are,” he said.
Thornton writes many songs about lower middle-class people who are down on their luck and he admits they are similar to many of the characters he has portrayed on film, such as Willie in “Bad Santa,” a con man posing as Santa Claus to rob stores.
He also disagrees with perceptions that actors who make records are talentless musical hacks.
“If I were doing this as a lark ... I would try to craft a pop song that was gonna make a hit,” he said. “And we (the Boxmasters) don’t really do that. We’re kind of an earthy bunch. I’m not out there trying to be on MTV and stuff.”
Thornton said he grew up playing in bands and he likes being close to music. He said he would even return to his roots as a roadie and work for Jack White, singer/songwriter for rock bands The White Stripes and the Raconteurs.
“I’ve grown quite fond of Jack White, mainly because he respects the history of music,” Thornton said. “He’s a kid who knows what came before him and that’s what’s important.”
But working on a touring crew is not great pay and Thornton still has to earn a living. He is currently shooting the film comedy “Manure” about a manure salesman in the 1960s.
Still, Thornton said is happiest talking about music or tinkering in his home’s recording studio.
“My personality is not made for vacationing. I prefer to be constantly working,” he said.” If I can make a movie a year and a record a year and do a tour a year, I’d be pretty happy.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman