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A night with Billy Bob Thornton: Actor goes back to his musical roots with the Boxmasters

UPDATED: Fri., May 13, 2022

Like Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton arrived in Hollywood in the 1980s attempting to become a recording artist but instead became an actor of considerable renown. Thornton, 66, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, took a hiatus during the Reagan era as a musician but started writing songs again during the 1990s. After recording a solo album, “Beautiful Door” in 2007, Thornton formed the Boxmasters with fellow vocalist and musician J.D. Andrew.

“Help … I’m Alive,” the sixth album from the prolific Boxmasters, will be showcased Friday at the Bing Crosby Theater. Thornton and Andrew discuss the genesis of the band. The former, who won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for 1996’s “Sling Blade,” reveals how he became an actor and what films he declined. The latter details what he wishes he had purchased in a Spokane pawn shop a decade ago.

How did the Boxmasters start out by melding the sounds of the British Invasion and hillbilly?

Andrew: It just came to us. We did it for three albums, and it was something we called “Modbilly.” We were inspired by the British Invasion and hillbilly. It was a sound we were comfortable with.

But you moved on from that sound.

Thornton: We were also inspired by other sounds, like Southern California music and Memphis stuff like Big Star and the Box Tops. After three albums, we got pigeonholed as the British Invasion hillbilly guys, and we ended up just playing country venues.

We had to tell people that we’re really this loud rock and roll band. We’ve since been compared to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers since we’re both influenced by the Beatles and the Byrds.

Speaking of the Beatles, how cool was it to work with the Fab Four’s engineer Geoff Emerick for 2019’s “Speck”?

Thornton: It was amazing. He produced and helped touch up some songs. The effects he put on the vocals were all things we grew up listening to on Beatles records. This was a guy who worked on “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper.” It was mind-blowing sitting around hearing him talk about his experiences with the Beatles when he was 16.

What’s a trippy Beatles story Emerick told you?

Thornton: I asked him if it were true that George Harrison got really pissed off that Yoko Ono ate his cookies. Geoff said it was true. One day, Yoko got out of her hospital bed in the studio and ate George’s cookies and he got really mad. Geoff had many Paul McCartney stories since he was Paul’s guy. The shame of it was that when “Speck” came out, Geoff had already passed away.

I love “Golden Hour.” It sounds a lot like a Jayhawks song.

Thornton: That’s a good call, actually. The Jayhawks are such a good band. It’s a shame you don’t hear them on the radio. It’s a strange time for radio. I remember growing up hearing James Taylor and Black Sabbath back-to-back on rock radio. Now, it’s so compartmentalized. Rock stations only play Boston and Foreigner. If they play ZZ Top, it’s just “La Grange” or “Tush.”

You have to dig for music these days, but considering how active you are as an actor, you write and record quite a bit. You remind me of Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, who is quite prolific and is also influenced by the Mersey beat sound.

Thornton: I don’t know Guided by Voices. I’ll have to check them out. I’m quite sheltered. The only two new bands I’ve heard over the last few years are Lucero and the Flat Earth Society.

Billy, you also remind me of George Carlin, since you’re apparently not one to hang out in Hollywood. When I asked Carlin about his small circle of friends, who were all out of the entertainment world, he said, “I don’t have Hollywood friends, and I’m proud of it.”

Thornton: That’s pretty much my story, as well. I don’t have an entertainment social life. I only go to Hollywood events if it’s required. I don’t hang around with actors. The only people I hang out with who you might of heard of are musicians like Dwight Yoakam.

Yoakam was so great in “Sling Blade.” That was one of the best performances by a musician in a film. Did you have any idea that Yoakam was that good of an actor?

Thornton: What’s funny is that Dwight was in the theater program at Ohio State. He came out to Los Angeles to act and fell into music. It was the opposite of me.

So you were like Johnny Depp, a musician who came to Hollywood but found work as an actor?

Thornton: Yes. I arrived in Hollywood during the height of hair metal back in the ‘80s and I didn’t fit in.

How did you get your start acting?

Thornton: Some guy asked me to come into an acting class, and the acting teacher said, “You can do this.” I started getting little parts, and it paid. I would get $350 for the day by saying something like, “Hey, Mister, you forgot your hat.” It paid the rent.

During that period, you met iconic director Billy Wilder when you were a waiter at a catered event. What was he like?

Thornton: He was the nicest gruffest guy you would have ever met. He was very cool and very good to me. I met him as a waiter at a Hollywood party. Dudley Moore was playing piano. Debbie Reynolds and Sammy Cahn were there. It’s funny, I told Dan Aykroyd, who is a friend, that I served him a fish appetizer at Stanley Donen’s party, and he said, “Really?”

Billy advised me to write and not just stand around like all the other actors. He gave the best acceptance speech ever. “I went to the doctor and told him that I can’t pee anymore. The doctor said, ‘How old are you?’ ‘95.’ ‘Well,’ the doctor said, ‘You’ve peed enough.’ ” Hilarious.

What films did you pass on?

Thornton: “Con Air” and “Pearl Harbor” are two that I didn’t think were right for me.

It’s been a while since you’ve performed in the Pacific Northwest, but do you have any Spokane memories?

Andrew: I went to a pawn shop, and there was this great amp, a Silvertone amp, that I didn’t buy, and it would have been great in my studio. I still regret that.

Thornton: I have a Spokane memory that’s not exactly Spokane. We played the Big Easy in Spokane, and there was a sister Big Easy in Boise. This is about 12 years ago. Before going further, I have to say how much I love the audience in Spokane. They’re amazing. So into the music. But this story has more to do with Boise. Paul Revere lived there. He was coming to our show, and he asked us to come to his house.

We went and I had to ask him a fan question. I said, “I hate to be a … fan, but do you have anything from back in the day with Paul Revere and the Raiders, like those tri corner hats?” He said to wait a minute, and he came back wearing one of those red, white and blue Paul Revere suits. We have pictures with him in it. When we left, he actually gave me a whole suit, those with black and gold stripes, that he wore on “The Jack Benny Show.”

I still have it. It’s one of my prized possessions. When I look back at my life, I grew up loving all of these amazing musicians, and now half of them are friends. Paul McCartney is a friend. I’ve had lunch with him a few times. I’m vegan, and he’s vegetarian. It’s so weird. I’m at a table talking with him like a regular guy. I sat there thinking, “How the hell did this happen?”

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