Billy Bob Thornton at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (May 26). $35. 416-870-8000.
Before picking up a guitar, Billy Bob Thornton already knew the potential hazards facing a film star intent on releasing his own music. While there's a willingness to accept the big-screen aspirations of recording artists like Will Smith and Dwight Yoakam, actors who want to make records must contend with far greater scrutiny.
The skepticism is justified. For every marquee name like Robert Mitchum -- an impressive singer/songwriter who could freestyle a killer calypso to boot -- there are loads of attention-seeking hacks like Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis who only seem to be doing it because they're celebrities.
Thornton's Marty Stuart-produced Private Radio (Lost Highway) debut isn't anyone's idea of a classic country record, but neither is it the work of a weekend dabbler. He knows how to use his limited vocal range to deliver a narrative in a captivating way. On a couple of tracks he shows himself to be a perfectly competent drummer.
But then, before he got into film, most of his life was spent behind the kit in Southern rock bands, culminating with a stint in the popular ZZ Top tribute act Tres Hombres.
Clearly, Thornton isn't new to the music game, so it's understandable that he'd be a bit upset to have the press lump Private Radio in with the vanity projects of dilettantes. If he sees one more of those Hollywood Goes Rock articles that run his picture between those of Kevin Bacon and Russell Crowe, he may haul out his sling blade.
"I'm so-o-o very tired of all that shit," Thornton sighs from Burbank during a break from rehearsing with his eight-piece touring band. "I've already been through the whole "weird guy' thing in the press, like I'm some lunatic who drinks blood and eats only orange food -- now this.
"If I were going do a vanity project, I would've tried to make a commercial-sounding album. What I did was make an honest record of story songs from the heart. To me, it's not unlike telling stories through film -- it's really all one thing.
"I'm not pretending to be something I'm not. These are songs about the darker times in my past, characters I knew, and there's a song for my wife. I'm not trying to steal somebody's wallet, I'm just doing what I love to do -- making music. It's been my life and my dream I just ended up an actor."
While Thornton was prepared for a rough ride in the press, he wasn't counting on his own label to cast doubt on his competence as a singer.
That's what happened when Lost Highway honcho Luke Lewis, perhaps underestimating Thornton's ambitions, was quoted as saying, "Billy wanted to sing more than I realized."
Evidently they didn't live up to each other's expectations -- Thornton is leaving the Nashville-based operation.
"I guess they were telling people that I had a spoken-word record coming out so that if people thought my record sucked, they could say, "We told him to make a spoken-word record and he went and put those damned songs on there.'
"They asked me do something for the Hank Williams tribute record, so I chose to do Lost Highway. They came back and said, "Maybe you should try a Luke the Drifter recitation instead.' I told them, "I'm in the talking business already, and I don't know if you read the papers, but I'm doing all right. I don't need the extra narration work.' It really hurt that they didn't trust me to do a song well enough."
According to Thornton, his nearly completed new recording, tentatively called The Edge Of The World, will be a concept album. Furthermore, he's producing it himself with a little help from his pal Dan Lanois, who is also playing guitar on two tracks.
"It's sort of my version of Red Headed Stranger, a story about a guy raised down South who fights his demons and tries to find a way to correct his problems. The people at the label I've been talking with get it, and they're really supportive of my new direction. "
The direction of Thornton's current tour places him on a collision course with Toronto, a place which has deep significance for him beyond being the site of his air-traffic-controller training for the film Pushing Tin.
"Actually my wife and I first got to know each other in Toronto. In the song Angelina, the line "I walked into an elevator and you walked into a wall' refers to the elevator at the Four Seasons Hotel there.
"We have a lot of special memories connected with Toronto, so I'm really looking forward to coming back."email@example.com