Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 7, 2001

It's the mutual admiration society duo of Billy Gibbons
of ZZ Top, left, and Billy Bob Thornton, who used
to play in a tribute band to that Texas trio,
called Tres Hombres.

Thornton feels home
on La Grange

"Private Radio"
Billy Bob Thornton
(Lost Highway/Universal)

Review by Gary C.W. Chun

Before he moved to California in 1981 to pursue an acting career, Billy Bob Thornton was a working musician. He started drumming at the age of 9, a boy growing up in Hot Springs, Ark., who would later play in several bands following high school, including one that toured nationally called Tres Hombres, a ZZ Top tribute band (talk about synchronicity! - see the accompanying story).

Thornton has built his reputation in acting, screenwriting and directing, but he was never far away from his music. In 1995, even during the shooting of his Oscar-noteworthy film "Sling Blade," Thornton would get together with some of his old bandmates and hold jam sessions for the film crew, something he would do on later film projects.

With the urging of musician friends in Nashville, Thornton was inspired to put together his own collection of songs and started writing - with the help of a fine country musician in his own right, Marty Stuart, who would become "Private Radio's" producer - when he returned to L.A.

The bulk of Thornton's songs and narratives can be labeled as "Southern gothic," tales of psychodrama populated by people living on the fringes of proper society, inhabiting rundown motel rooms and dingy lounges. Thornton himself is a character in his songs.

His narrative voice is a low, sandpaper rasp -- akin to Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen -- which he uses to great effect on the album's atmospheric leadoff track, "Dark and Mad," and "Beauty at the Back Door," which relates a heated memory of a teenage temptress walking house-to-house in his neighborhood when he was a boy, looking for a bit of loving attention from the men of the house, including his own father. With Thornton putting the right spin on the story, it's a great tale.

His singing voice is surprisingly light and melodic at times. His love songs to his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, are tender and heartfelt. The songs he covers on the album, the Byrds' ode to John Kennedy, "He Was a Friend of Mine," and the Hank Williams classic "Lost Highway," ring true when done by this maverick Renaissance man.

In an interview with the Oxford American, Thornton lays out his feelings for this debut album. "I did my record the way I wanted to. I did it right out of my f---ing guts and right out of my heart. I sing like I sing, I write like I write, and the guys I played music with play like they play. For the people who don't like it, God bless them. For people who want to criticize it to be smart, they can kiss my ass."

Well, Mr. Thornton, sir, you've got no complaint from my side. You've made one helluva album.

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