Billy Bob Thornton is offering a bit of advice: always lie. Seated on a couch in Nashville's historic RCA Studio A with his fellow Boxmasters — the rock-rockabilly-country group he formed in 2007 — Thornton is opening up about one of the key songs on the band's new double album, Somewhere Down the Road. A slice of moody singer-songwriter Americana, "Always Lie" is the Boxmasters' response to today's "gotcha!" media.
"The song is written about the press. But not the old style press. We now have to deal with bloggers and TMZ," Thornton tells Rolling Stone Country. "What it's really about is how righteous journalists get screwed out of a good interview these days because of those people. . . A great interview is when you tell the truth. But now nobody wants to tell the truth because it will bite you in the ass."
And Thornton, who was a musician and roadie well before he became a movie and TV star (this year, he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in FX's black comedy Fargo), knows a thing or two about false impressions. Despite fronting the Boxmasters for almost a decade and releasing his debut solo album, Private Radio, in 2001, his musical intentions are still subject to scrutiny. But Somewhere Down the Road could once and for all dispel any talk of moonlighting. Says Thornton: "All we want is a fair shake."
An ambitious two-disc set, Somewhere Down the Road, released earlier this month, is cleanly divided between the Byrds/Big Star jangle-pop of Disc One and the introspective country-Americana of Disc Two, all of it brought to life by ace players. Thornton's right-hand man and guitarist J.D. Andrew, keyboardist Teddy Andreadis — who toured with Guns N' Roses during their infamous Use Your Illusion Tour — and guitarist Brad Davis make up the core of the Boxmasters, with an additional bassist and drummer joining them on the road. During a recent two-night stand at the Franklin Theatre just south of Nashville, the group shifted seamlessly between Nuggets-type garage rock and country-inflected ballads, with Thornton prefacing the songs with alternatingly poignant and outrageous stories.
The best — about the innuendo-laced standout track "Kathy Won't Share" — was one he first told Rolling Stone Country earlier that afternoon. Thornton wrote the song about a guy he knew growing up in Arkansas, who just couldn't understand why his wife refused to agree to a ménage a trois. Eventually, he wanted a divorce and came to Thornton with an indecent proposal.
"His family was big in the Baptist church and the only way he could get a divorce is if she cheated on him. So he asked me, cause she always liked me, to go over there and have sex with her at their house, and let him catch us. He was going to pay me $100," Thornton recounts, as the Boxmasters break into fits of laughter.
"How classic is that? And she was hot as shit. I didn't know why he wanted rid of her," Thornton continues. "Well, she was a pain in the ass actually."
Such experiences are fertile ground for Boxmasters music, and the band is perpetually creating. Thornton says there are five other albums already mastered and ready for release, likely via the group's website.
"We've always recorded continuously and never stopped," says Andrew.
"But we're not writing continuously with a gun to our head. We're writing because we get inspired. J.D. had an idea the other day, I had one, Billy had two. You don't want to shut the faucet off," says Davis.
Andreadis, an in-demand session musician, says Thornton and Andrew are maddeningly prolific. "If I'm gone for a month doing something else and I come back, these guys will play me buckets of songs. I'm like, 'When did you write these, man?'" He also admits to being dumbstruck the first time he heard Thornton sing in Somewhere Down the Road's Britpop style, all harmonies and upper register. "I couldn't even believe it was him singing. I was like, 'Where did that voice come from?' It blew my mind."
Elevated by Thornton's distinctive vocals — he handles all the harmonies, with Davis backing him onstage — the songs on Somewhere Down the Road succeed because of their infectious nature. Nearly all have repetitive choruses, like "Piece of the Sky," "Love Is Real Tonight" and especially "Sometimes There's a Reason for the Pain." Like the best work of the underrated Gin Blossoms or even Alex Chilton's Big Star, the bright and cheery vibe of the songs belie their heavy, sometimes downer lyrics.
"That's one of our trademarks: our happy-sounding pop songs are usually pretty dark," says Thornton. "I'm not a moody person, but I don't sit around the house and have a burrito and watch TV like Mr. Happy. I'm usually sitting there thinking about the past, and scared of the future. But it's not just a neurosis. There are a lot of things that have happened in my life and affected me in a way that I can't forget and scare me for the future. These are actual concrete things — it's not just a mental illness."
He pauses for a laugh. "That's what ['Sometimes There's a Reason'] is really about. A psychiatrist or a pill, that's not always the answer. Sometimes you just have to live with it."
Or lie about it — at least to some sects of the press.
Still, Thornton and his bandmates insist they are nothing but honest in their songwriting.
"We do tell the truth in our music," he says. "The creative process is not like working in a factory. It is about human emotion."