If you are going to add music, the key is that it should support the emotion that you are already feeling. When you get music that has to point out to people what the emotion is supposed to be, then you are screwed up.
A critically acclaimed actor, screenwriter and director, Billy Bob Thornton is one of Hollywood’s most unique and engaging talents. Thornton has acted in numerous films that range from big-budget blockbusters to smaller independents; his acting credits includeA Simple Plan, Primary Colors, Dead Man, Indecent Proposal, One False Move, Pushing Tin, Armageddon, and Robert Duvall’s personal triumph,The Apostle.
Thornton’s best known work, however, is still his masterful 1996 indie release Sling Blade, in which he wrote, directed and starred. Sling Blade earned Thornton the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, as well as a Best Actor nomination.
This past year, Thornton directed a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s National Book Award-winning novel All the Pretty Horses, which earned him praise for his directorial instincts and the film’s portrayal of McCarthy’s subtly complex novel.
Thornton’s other screenplay credits include One False Move, Don’t Look Back, A Family Thing and, most recently, Daddy and Them, in which, like Sling Blade, Thornton also directed and starred. Daddy and Them is due out this fall through Miramax, and like Thornton’s best work, it richly depicts Southern characters with believable dimensionality.
This fall, Thornton will also release his debut effort as a recording artist. The album Private Radio draws from the same Southern culture that informs his best cinematic work. It might surprise many to learn that before making a name for himself in Hollywood, Thornton spent many years writing and performing music in the South. Private Radio ranges musically from traditional country to blues and R&B-influenced Americana. In addition to a number of original songs, Thornton performs strong versions of The Byrds’ “He Was a Friend Of Mine” and Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway.”
In the following interview, Thornton discusses his recording work, shares his thoughts on music in film, and tells some great stories along the way.
You’re working on a couple of films in Louisiana. How are things going?
I’m doing fine, but I’m working 18 hours a day. About two weeks ago, my allergies had me down and I got something that felt like the flu. The people around here just told me to take some local honey, which is loaded with the pollen from the area and it creates an immunity. I did it, and it worked. These Cajuns got some Mojo don’t they?
The film I’m working on right now is called Behind The Sun. I play a Louisiana cop who is investigating the murder of a transsexual. He is not exactly open to the idea of transsexuals, but it is the story of his journey through learning he’s a human being and that everybody is. The movie stars Patricia Arquette and myself.
Last night, I did some scenes with some transvestites in a club. It was pretty wild. One of them came up to me and asked, “Do I look better than the rest of the girls?” I said, “Well I don’t know. I might not be the right guy to ask. But as far as I can tell, I think you are.” [Laughs]
I’m doing another film here in Louisiana, after this one, called The Monster’s Ball. In it, I play an executioner in Angola penitentiary. That is really heavy. In fact, it may be the heaviest script I have ever read.
Angola doesn’t look like a prison to me. There are all these crops in the fields, and it is a beautiful place, yet there are these cellblocks, which is a very odd thing. It was such a weird place. We were working on death row, so that can put you in a pretty dark mood.
Normally, you get maybe one script a year that you really get excited about. I was fortunate enough, for the last year or so, to be able to do movies with really great scripts. There are three movies coming out right in a row in September, October and November. On September 21 is Waking Up In Reno, and October 12 is Bandits, which Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchet and I did for Barry Levinson. Then November 9 is the Coen Brothers’ movie [The Man From Nowhere]. So it is going to be a busy fall.
As if that hasn’t been enough activity, you’ve just released your debut album, Private Radio, on Lost Highway Records.
We wanted the first record to be like Sling Blade was, which was my first movie as a director. What turned out was really what is me. We didn’t do a whole lot of monkey business on this album. I don’t have any guest stars. It’s basically Marty Stuart’s band and Barry Beckett and me.
For most of the songs on the album, Marty and I first laid down the tracks with me singing and him on the acoustic guitar, and then he added the bass and I would play the drums. Then the band would come in and they would have to play to that. Most of it worked out. We have two songs on the record where we ended up keeping the tracks that Marty and I first laid down, because we just couldn’t beat the original feel of those first demo tracks.
I thought about playing acoustic guitar on one of the songs, but I didn’t. I’m one of those guys who can start every Neil Young song. I can’t necessarily finish them, but I can start all of them. [Laughs]
I understand that you recorded the entire album in your home studio. The previous owner of your house was Slash of Guns N’ Roses, and your studio was once known as Slash’s Snake Pit.
Yeah. In fact, Jim Mitchell, who engineered and mixed my album, toured with and worked on Guns N’ Roses’ records and did Slash’s record. Jim is the guy who designed our studio. One of the best things we inherited with the house was him, when we bought the house from Slash. Angie and I only looked at one house, and we said, “Let’s buy this one!” It had a recording studio in the basement and a kitchen by the bedroom. We thought, “Shit, what else do you need?”
I’m telling you, I’m so in love with our place and it is where I want to always record. We found that when we tried to go to other places and studios, at the end of the day, the home studio was where our sound was born, and it is the best sound. We mixed at A&M, but three of the songs were mixed at our place, because we could never beat the mix that we got there. Those songs were “Private Radio,” “He Was a Friend of Mine” and “Lost Highway.”
On “Lost Highway,” which originally was a Hank Williams song, we were fortunate to have Don Helms come play steel guitar. Don is the only surviving member of Hank Williams’ band, and he played steel guitar with him back then. He hasn’t had his guitar out since he played all those gigs with Hank Williams in the ’40s and ’50s. He brought it out from under his bed to do our record. When the steel comes in, it is like a ghost is in the room, because it is so familiar. It sounds so much like something from a Hank Williams record that it is insane.
I have one spoken word thing on my album called “Beauty at the Back Door.” It is something that Marty and I did at my house one night. Marty told me, “Talk to me about that house you grew up in that was out in the country in Alpine [Arkansas].” Marty started playing this acoustic guitar, and I started talking about the South. The story that came out was totally ad-libbed, and what is on the record is exactly what we did in one take.
What was it like working with Marty Stuart as a producer for your album?
I sound a certain way and write certain kinds of songs and have my own thing. Marty Stuart knows what that is, and he knows when I get outside of that. He helped me stay true to myself all the time, which I will never forget him for. If I started wanting to be slicker, or if I got lazy or thought I couldn’t do something, Marty knew and kept me being real, which is what a good director does in a movie. Essentially, the producer on a record is like a director on a movie.
We got Joe Gastwirt to master this record, and he did a great job. He did the Grateful Dead stuff like American Beauty and the first Garcia solo record, which is one of my favorite records. I’m really hoping that I can find a way to have a vinyl version of my record released. I really love the sound of records.
One thing I can say about this record is that it’s me. It is exactly what I did. I don’t listen to these songs and go, “Damn, I wish I had just done this or that. It is, for better or worse, what I did and what I wanted and that is the key to all of this stuff. I mean, people don’t take paintings and send them around to different cities and see if people want to rearrange the ears on a portrait and shit.
You mean like they do in the film industry?
Test audiences are actually controlling what we see and what we hear. If you are going to let the audience tell you what they want, before you put it out, then what is the point of any of it? I thought the point was the mystery of going out and picking up that new record and going to see that new movie that is out and having your own opinion when you see it with an audience or hear it in your car with a buddy. I think it is ruining any artistic endeavor these days, because [art] is being test-marketed like toothpaste.
One component that I find consistent in movies like Sling Blade and All the Pretty Horses is the almost anti-MTV approach of shooting scenes and taking your time with them. I get a sense that the spirit behind the movie’s creation is one that trusts the viewer’s ability to flow with a scene and be in the scene for however long it takes for things to unfold.
You let it play out like real life. That is the thing they don’t want. For all the things they tried to do to All the Pretty Horses, the one thing they couldn’t do is change that quality. They could cut it to five minutes, but those five minutes would be the way we did it.
You’re currently working on a second album, which is a cover album of sorts.
Yeah. We’re doing versions of “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” by Andy Williams, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” as well as Classics IV’s “Spooky” and Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Kicks.” We cut “Kicks” almost like the original record. We also did “Young Girl,” that song that was done by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. When we were young, we used to play that music for girls and stuff. We always kept Bread and Gary Puckett handy, in the car.
You recently cut a version of “Ring of Fire” on Earl Scruggs’ new album. How did that come about?
I was in Nashville recording some tracks over at Ocean Way, and Randy and Gary Scruggs would come around to say “Hello.” They told me that Earl and Louise [Scruggs] were big Sling Blade fans. One night, I played Earl and Louise “I Still Miss Someone,” which I had originally cut for my record, and Earl just loved it. Then Randy called me and said, “My Dad wants to know if you will be on his record. He went ape over your voice, and he wants you to do a Johnny Cash song. He wants to know if you will do ‘I Walk the Line’ or ‘Ring of Fire.’” I called Marty up and said, “Earl wants me to be on his record. What would you do, ‘Ring of Fire’ or ‘I Walk the Line?’” Marty said, “‘Ring of Fire.’” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “I don’t even think Cash can sing ‘I Walk the Line’ anymore.” [Laughs] So we did it.
There is nothing on my record that is as country as the banjo is on “Ring of Fire,” and there is nothing on that record that is as hip-hop as the beat that Randy laid down on the track. “Ring of Fire” would’ve fit on my record. You could’ve put it on my record, and it wouldn’t of been a surprise or a shock at all. It’s a cool track.
Who first encouraged your love for music?
I was raised around it. My uncle, who was my mother’s brother, was a country musician. He was kind of an alcoholic carpenter who had a voice like Jim Reeves and played guitar like Chet Atkins. He was just one of those guys who everybody loved, but he just couldn’t get his life together. I actually wrote a movie about him called The Sounds of Country. It’s been finished for years, and I’ve been saving it until I know that I can do it without anyone messing with it.
Anyway, my mother had always been such a music fan and she had one of these old record players — the kind that you put the arm on the records and the records drop down on the platter and it would shut off when it was done. She would go to sleep every night to certain records. Elvis’ King Creole was one of them. I grew up listening to Elvis, Ray Price, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.
She told me that my first two words were “Elvis” and “funnel,” because we had a lot of tornados where we lived in Arkansas. It seems that I spent half my childhood in a storm cellar. When a tornado came, the adults were scared shitless and they were trying to protect the kids, but for us, the storm cellar was full of preserves and shit like that; it was like an adventure. We were down there in the hole and the tornado would be outside.
Before your film career took off, did you have designs to do music?
Well, yeah. The acting thing didn’t come along until later on. I was an actor in drama school — in high school and all of that kind of thing. I was also kind of a smart-ass in school, so I guess I was destined to be an actor. Originally, my dream was to be either a musician or a baseball player.
My first band was called The McCoveys. We named ourselves after Willie McCovey, the San Francisco Giants baseball player. We played a lot of Dave Clark Five songs. Later on, we played a lot of songs by Tommy James & The Shondells, too. You know, stuff like “Hanky Panky” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
The first song I ever played live in front of a big audience was for a PTA meeting at my elementary school. We played “The Ballad of the Green Beret” by Sergeant Barry Sadler. We didn’t have a microphone or anything like that. We just did instrumentals at that time, because we hadn’t worked on our singing yet. We just played the music to “The Ballad of the Green Beret.” Of course, the words to the song were the whole point. Without the words, it was nothing. [Laughs] I played drums in the very first group I was in. We had two guys on guitar who both played Silvertone guitars and there was no bass player.
“I Want To Hold Your Hand” was the first record I actually bought for myself. I’ll never forget watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan the first time. It was astounding. I thought The Beatles’ drummer was named Ludwig, because it said Ludwig on his bass drum head. So I called Ringo Ludwig for the first few days. Then I started hearing them called John, Paul, George and Ringo. [Laughs] Isn’t that weird that I thought he was named Ludwig?
When I was in elementary school — like around 11 or 12 — I found a Mothers of Invention album in a record store. I didn’t even know what that was, but their early stuff became some of my all-time favorite music. I thought, “Hey that looks kind of weird. I’m going to buy that.” So I started listening to the Mothers and Captain Beefheart and the Bonzo Dog Band and all that stuff.
The Mothers’ Burnt Weeny Sandwich is one of my all time favorite records. I wrote Sling Blade listening to that. I always tell people that I grew up the way I did, because I grew up listening to Jim Reeves, Hank Williams, the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. [Laughs] So, you know… that doesn’t make for a real stable child.
What is your required listening on the road?
I also always take like a greatest hits or anthology on Merle Haggard and George Jones. I always take Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. I always take that, and The Allman Brothers at The Fillmore East.
A classic. I loved “Hot ‘Lanta.”
Oh buddy! I was once in a soul group called Hot ‘Lanta. It wasn’t like any of us were from Atlanta. We didn’t even play the song. We just called the band that.
The first time I heard the Allman Brothers, I thought, “This will be my favorite music forever. There is no way around it.” Some spirit speaks through those guys. I never considered that the Allman Brothers were Southern rock. I considered them something just supernatural. They always will be to me.
The first song that Greg Allman wrote and brought to the Allman Brothers was “Dreams.” Now how do you write that when you are 21 or 19 or whatever he was, unless you’ve lived already. There is no way you can do that. I believe in the eternal life. I believe that we keep living life over and over and over, and I always have.
John Prine, Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart and those guys don’t do what they do unless something is speaking through them. I know these guys! They are not just sitting around thinking of clever stuff. We are just a bunch of assholes sitting around doing our thing. We are just a bunch of damn guys. I used to shovel asphalt for the highway department and work in a sawmill in Arkansas. Anytime someone asks, “Where did Sling Blade come from?” Shit! I don’t know! I was born with it! You know?
When I was a teenager, there was a guy named Uncle Bill, in Lloyd, Florida, where I spent a summer. He would sweep trees in the neighborhood and bury insects out in the middle of the county highway. Uncle Bill was an older man who was an innocent, whose brain had been damaged from a severe fever as a child.
Growing up, there was always some guy in every little town who was walking around town like that. Carl [the main character of Sling Blade] is a combination of two or three people that I knew. When I was growing up, we had a guy who was a shell-shocked veteran, and he used to go around knocking on telephone poles, because he thought there might be a bomb in them. There was another guy where I was raised as a little kid, living out in the woods with my Grandmother, whose family actually made him stay out back in a little shed and fed him out there and stuff like that. They used to say he was afflicted, and some of the stories were that when his mother was pregnant with him, she saw a snake and it scared her, and he turned out that way. Another story was that they were drunk when she conceived him. What it really was, was that he had polio. So it was just bits and pieces of things I knew in my life.
Thinking of Sling Blade, I always loved the band practice scene. It’s such a dysfunctional pack of guys.
All musicians love that scene! I distinctly remember a time, when I was a teenager, when guys put together bands named after stuff in the Bible. At one point back then, we were going to call ourselves Ecclesiastes. That was when we added a couple of keyboard players. [Laughs]
What are your feelings about the role of music in film?
Music is vastly important in movies. Sometimes there is the emotion of what is going on in the scene, and you have no music, and that emotion would be there [anyway]. If you are going to add music, the key is that it should support the emotion that you are already feeling. When you get music that has to point out to people what the emotion is supposed to be, then you are screwed up. That is the bad stuff. Music shouldn’t be pointing out anything. It should be what the thing is.
Some directors really go for this bombastic music, and it is so ridiculous. Music is so important, and that is why I have Marty [Stuart] do the music for my recent stuff and Daniel Lanois for Sling Blade. Daniel Lanios’ score on Sling Blade works extremely well. I also like Marty’s score for Daddy and Them. They know what the deal is. It has to be one thing, and that is a marriage and harmony between music and a movie.
One thing that I find very frustrating and compromising to the integrity of a film, concerns the loading up of trendy hit acts onto a soundtrack. It is reducing music to merely another form of product placement.
The movie business and the music business all sucks, you know? Nowadays, they all want to get 14 songs by whoever the latest acts are. They only want to get whoever is popular to do it. They are only after making a soundtrack album that is going to make money on its own, but what happens is that it is no longer there to serve the vision of the movie and to be a bed for the movie to lay on.
What would you regard as a score or piece of cinematic music that you felt really affected you positively?
The Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. That music was very moving, and the music was exactly about the tone of the film. Ken Burns sat there with these people and practically conducted them through the movie. As long as there is a pure vision involved, that is the stuff that I like. Anywhere that happens, that is great.
There is a movie that I was in that Jim Jarmusch did called Dead Man. Neil Young came in and played the guitar while he watched the movie, and it was wonderful. As a matter of fact, there is a 10-minute scene in the movie that Iggy Pop, Gary Farmer and I were in that is on the soundtrack… Neil’s music, the dialog and all. It was really wonderful.
What other areas of show business would you like to explore?
Working in the music and film industry, I would imagine you’ve already learned a lot about tap dancing.
No shit! But I want to learn the kind where you actually move your feet not your ass.
Rick Clark is a contributing editor to Mix and producer of the award-winning Oxford American CD collections.
MARTY STUART’S BILLY BOB PONDERINGS
The genesis of Marty Stuart’s involvement with Billy Bob Thornton’s Private Radio came during the spring of 2000, when Thornton showed up at Ocean Way Nashville to cut some cover songs with some old playing buddies. Stuart (an established artist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a catalog of hit country records) initially wondered if Thornton had the goods to be a recording artist. It didn’t take long for Stuart to see that Thornton shared the same kind of Renaissance mentality toward art, and that any medium was fair game for expression.
“When he came into Nashville last spring to do some recording, I had no idea what he had up his sleeve,” Stuart says. “Even if he had anything, I didn’t know if he was just having fun or if he was serious about it. He came in and did a bunch of cover songs with some friends from Arkansas, and I called a couple of guys to help out on the sessions. I actually played bass on those sessions.
“At the end, I didn’t really think that much about it, but the thing that I saw in those sessions was how much he loved music. So out of that alone, he got my respect. I remember he came up to me and asked, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Are you driving back to California?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you call me when you get back to California and tell me what you think, and we’ll go from there.’
“I personally thought that the problem that he had standing before him was that there was a lot of love and passion that was a little bit unformed and undefined,” Stuart continues. “And, as most actors do, when they do a project, no matter how legitimate it is, it’s written off as a vanity project — yet another actor or actress stepping up to the microphone. I call it the ‘William Shatner Hurdle.’
“But I kept thinking about Sling Blade and his writing, and I went out to California and took a guitar and said, ‘We’re going to get into the basement of your studio, and we’re going to find out what’s there.’
“We picked around the first night, and at the end of the night I said, ‘Turn the lights off…take me somewhere…tell me a story.’ I started playing guitar chords, and he came up with this almost 11-minute spoken-word piece called ‘Beauty at the Backdoor.’ [It was] just me playing chords and him telling a story. He didn’t miss a word. I knew at the end of that there was something to work with, and it was valid, and it was legitimate. It was pure Southern literature. It came from his gut and his heart, and I found the door to his soul. I thought this is the ‘getting on’ place. From that moment on, I knew that I absolutely had a real project on my hands.
“The thing that I found out last year, when he was in Nashville recording, and he brought his buddies in from Arkansas who he used to play with, is that they basically got starved out, and it didn’t happen [for them years earlier]. So Billy Bob had to go become an actor and come back 20 years later to support his band habit. He had brought his old buddies back with him, and I thought to myself, ‘He’s still true to the band. I love that, you know.’
“Jim Mitchell engineered and mixed the project. When I first shook hands with Jim — without even knowing him three minutes in — I told Billy Bob, ‘Hire this man, and as long as you live never let him out of your sight.’ This was last August. Since then, I’ve scored All the Pretty Horses and Waking Up in Reno. I’ve done two projects for Billy Bob, produced those and I wouldn’t think about going to the studio without Jim Mitchell anymore.
“The next record is the covers record. We’ve already tracked it, and it’s just a matter of putting strings on it now. It’s a perfect reflection of Billy Bob. It’s just how across-the-board his tastes are.
“The thing that I walk away from this first record with is, it didn’t exactly let you stand still and let you get comfortable with it. It kind of moves around, but I thought so does he. It’s like a 55-minute visit with Billy Bob. That’s what records are supposed to be.”
— Rick Clark
Jim Mitchell on Billy Bob Thornton’s Cave
Before Jim Mitchell worked with Billy Bob Thornton, his engineering work included the Guns N’ Roses albums, as well as Slash’s Snake Pit. When Thornton purchased Slash’s studio, Mitchell (who was essentially running the home facility) stayed on to help fine-tune the room, engineer and help equip it with all sorts of instruments and new and classic gear. Mitchell states that the facility is “actually a mini version of A&M Studio B.” The approximately 1,500-square-foot studio is outfitted with five iso booths and a great collection of vintage guitar, amps, drums and keyboards. The control room has the latest RADAR system and a Trident 80-B console. There is a full complement of mics (Neumann, AKG, Shure, etc.) and mic pre’s (Neve, API, Trident, Avalon).
— Rick Clark