I BLAME THE PRODUCERS!

Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t live nearly so much in Hyphen Land as some of his near field contemporaries who’ve made it a punchline to a joke that no one seems to remember. So not so much a dancer-painter-landscape designer-tap dancer or a director-psychotherapist, Billy Bob “Actor-Musician” Thornton’s love for and involvement IN music is the superset within which all of everything else about him should be understood. Before the movies and the whole star of silver screen slop, there was him onstage opening for BLACK OAK ARKANSAS, the MC5, and the EARL SCRUGGS REVUE, for chrissakes.
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So no surprise then when the phone rings and we get the call to cameo appearance it over at Casa Billy.

The occasion? Him putting the final touches on his new record that leastways as we can tell is all about hobos and the California dream machine. And we find him in fine fettle and ensconced in the studio that Slash Built (EQ, March 2003), raconteuring about who’s destroying Nashville, why music sucks, and his deep and abiding love for Fergie from The Black Eyed Peas (EQ, January 2005).

EQ: Music sucking these days? Yes or no: your reaction, sir!

Billy Bob Thornton: Well, originality has declined because I think what music is really about is not as important to the marketplace. I don’t think we can blame The Suits now either because I think the public, once they get used to something, gets lulled into this hypnotherapy session and all of a sudden that becomes what they want to hear. But I think it’s more Madison Avenue than anything else, because fashion is too closely tied to music and musical statements now are more fashion statements.

EQ: OK. And in MY day. . . .

BBT: OK, look, when I was growing up, and I’m 49 now, but when I was growing up you were supposed to be different. You were either a great lyricist or a guitar band with great guitar players or your thing was melodies, or like The Beatles, who had all of that. But now? Retro bands? It’s sold more as a product than it ever was, and the product has to fit the marketplace and the marketplace wants this ONE thing and if you’re going to sell five million records you damned well better sound like that one thing.

EQ: So it’s The System?

BBT: Let’s look at country music, OK? It doesn’t exist anymore except for Dwight Yoakam or maybe Alan Jackson because right now all it is is just watered down pop music. And the problem with Nashville is the problem with all of music: Whatever vibe is IN in Nashville at the time, well everybody does it. You got two sets of studio musicians, and they play on everything. But beyond that I blame the producers, since the producers working in Nashville now were producing ‘80s hair bands in L.A., and when that crashed for a lot of the same reasons that things are bad now they all moved to Nashville. So when you hear a ballad in Nashville now it’s a big, heavy metal pop ballad with a Southern accent. And maybe they throw a steel guitar in there. And maybe the singer’s from Connecticut. But you know, at least he’s got a cowboy hat on.

EQ: Is it irredeemably broken, do you think?

BBT: Nah. Tony Brown’s been a producer there for a long time even though he’s more of a record guy now. But Tony’s done great work. Randy Scruggs. Scruggs produces terrific records. And I want to hear records produced by Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt. Also I love what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash. But you know I’m not one of those guys shutting off new music with extreme prejudice. I just find that when I listen to it I don’t like it as much when I hear crap in it. And if I don’t hear authenticity in it, it’s crap. So I listen to everything. I just bought some music. Some [pulling CDs out of a bag] Allman Brothers. The Shaggs. Seals & Croft. But you know I like The Cramps too. And I really like The Black Eyed Peas. When that girl in the group jumps up and starts doing that dance [starts doing some sort of wild watusi], man, that just really does it for me.

EQ: And your record?

BBT: Well my stuff is dictated by the mood I’m in. The record I just made I started in Chicago when I was working on a movie and was in a hotel and was talking to my mother about hobos and. . . .

EQ: Homos?

BBT: No, HOBOS. But it’s in the vein of Tom Waits, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson. Real vocal-up mixes with a real rich sort of moody production. It’s not a concept album like Tommy but it’s as punk as anything The Who ever did. And if you don’t think The Who were punk, well you’re wrong about that.