Thornton released four solo albums -- 'Private Radio,' 'Edge of the World,' 'Hobo' and 'Beautiful Door' -- before joining country-rockers, The Boxmasters. The Boot was invited into his Beverly Hills home to talk about new music from the band's second release, 'Christmas Cheer.' Thornton also tells us about a near death experience, the surprising start to his Hollywood career, and the hilariously heartwarming story of his musical beginnings.
What initially attracted you to playing music?
That's all I ever did. Acting snuck up on me. I wanted to be in the Beatles, like all of us. I listened to country music, particularly Ray Price and Jim Reeves, when I was a little kid, because my folks did. My uncle was a country musician, and I played drums in his band. My upbringing was on that, mainly, and on Sun Records like Jerry Lee Lewis, [Johnny] Cash, Charlie Rich and Elvis. But when my brother and I saw the Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan,' I was nine years old and that was the end of it right there – I was either going to be in a band or I'd jump off a building.
What did you do to start developing your voice?
I sang country music when I was a kid, and I always had a very strange voice because I could sing really low and I could also sing like a girl. All the high harmonies on our records are me, so I still do both of those things like I did when I was a kid. I didn't have training, but I was an alto in choir at school.
Who taught you to play drums?
The only training I had on drums wasn't training as much as me being a little freak who wanted to be around a band. In the mid '60s, there was a band in our town called The Yardleys, and they made a 45. They were like the Beatles to us. They were seniors when I was a freshman, and they had a drummer named Bucky Griggs who played a red sparkle Ludwig kit. I coveted that kit. He was like Ringo [Starr].
They used to practice at a guy's house named Bo Jones, who lived in the good neighborhood, and I lived in the shitty neighborhood. Me and my buddy would go over and stand in Bo Jones' front yard and look through the hedges and watch the Yardleys practice. One day, they came out and chased us off, but we didn't get very far. We were in the street when Bucky came out, and I was so nervous, it was like President Clinton coming up to you or something. I thought he going to yell at us, but he said, 'You kids want to be in a band, don't you?' I said, 'Yeah, we do.' He said, 'What do you play?' I said, 'I play drums.' He said, 'Do you wanna come in and sit behind my drums?' He brought me in the house, and those drums seemed like they were the size of a building. He told me I could play them, but I was too nervous to do it, so I just kinda tapped on them. He said, 'It's OK, you can play 'em hard,' and he sat down and taught me how to do a couple of things. My first real drum kit was a red sparkle Ludwig kit, just like his. I'll never forget that. That's why whenever anyone says I'm an actor making a record, I tell them to kiss my ass.
What was the plan after high school?
My two dreams were to either be in the Beatles or pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, so I pitched all the way through high school. I was kind of a local high school baseball hero. I tried out for the Kansas City Royals, but got injured. I was playing in bands all along, and we were pretty popular in our area. Tom Epperson, my old neighbor and buddy, wanted to go to L.A. to be screenwriter and he said, 'Hey, you were in drama class in high school. Why don't you try to go be an actor?' I was thinking I could go get a band in L.A. I had already worked as a roadie for a sound company and had worked for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, so I went out with him the first time at 21. We actually went to San Diego -- Tom and I were too afraid to go all the way to L.A. We thought that was safer.
What were you going to do in San Diego?
You got me. We stayed in Lakeside with my aunt and uncle for the summer. I ended up getting in a band in Mexico, and we played the border towns. We ended up going back to Arkansas. When we went back to California, I think I was 23, and I've been here ever since.
Is that when you got really sick?
That was in '84. To tell you the truth, I didn't have any money and nearly starved to death. The thing is, I knew people out here, but I was too embarrassed to tell them I was broke. You know when you're trying to be an actor and you want to appear that you're doing OK? So I went for about two solid weeks without eating anything. I drank water, but when you drink too much water and you're not eating, it strips all the minerals that you need and nearly killed me ... It was the same thing that happens to an anorexic – you lose all your potassium and your electrolytes get all screwed up. It caused my heart to seize up on me, and I had no insurance, so they put me in L.A. County Hospital. I had gone to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, but they kicked me out because I didn't have any money. So they sent me down to County where they put the street people.
Obviously your luck changed with your Oscar-winning movie, 'Sling Blade.' How did your character in that movie come about?
I started that character in the theatre -- I used to do a one-man show. Fred Roos, who casted and produced some big movies, saw me and wanted Tom and me to write a script for him. He put me in a TV show called 'The Outsiders' in '87. I had a regular role on that for a year, so all those things lead to things. My manager thought I should meet this guy named Larry Meistrich, who ran a little company in New York called Shooting Gallery. They said, 'We're going to let you make your own movie and direct it if you'll do it for free, because we don't have any money. But we'll give you 50 percent of whatever it makes.' Of course, I thought that would be like $30, but I wanted to make my movie. So 50 percent of 'Sling Blade' ended up being ... a lot! That's pretty crazy, isn't it?
How did music re-enter the picture?
I always kind of still jammed around with my friends, and I directed a documentary in 1990 for Widespread Panic. I met Marty Stuart when he came out to visit a movie set I was working on, and I told him I wanted to come down to Nashville and do some demos. So somewhere about '98, I went down and started doing demos at Oceanway Studios in Nashville, and those demo sessions are what ultimately became 'Private Radio.'
And now it seems your music career has taken over.
It really has. I record and play live a lot more than I make movies these days. I have to make movies still to make a living, because, as you know, the record business is not real stable now.
'Christmas Cheer' is not your traditional holiday record. How do you write a Christmas song -- does it have to be happy?
No. One of the songs we covered was John Prine's 'Christmas in Prison,' and that kind of inspired me to write along those lines for the record. That said, I love Christmas.
Did you love Christmas growing up, even though things weren't easy?
Yeah, because we didn't know any better. There were a lot of reasons we loved Christmas – we were out of school, and these days, everything shuts down for a long time, which is nice because it's the only time I get a break. I love to listen to Dean Martin, [Frank] Sinatra and Mel Torme. I play Christmas music all year round. I'm a big fan of Christmas. I have kids, and I love seeing their faces ... Then at the same time, I watch people who have these really dysfunctional families and Christmas just becomes a f---in' nightmare.
What do you love about this Christmas album?
I love the fact that there is not another one like it out there. There's probably never been a blazing rockabilly hillbilly version of 'We Three Kings,' you know? Also the fact that it has some original songs on it. I love that we have some traditional songs on there that are done our way, but we also have our songs that are not traditional. A couple of them are pretty sad. 'Slower Than Christmas' is like the worst day of the year for this guy. And here's something I love about it: I love that it sounds like a Boxmasters' record. Everybody does a Christmas record. You'll go into a store and there'll be one by Vince Gill and Tim McGraw, and they do 'White Christmas' and 'Silent Night.' This just sounds like a Boxmasters' record, and you have to listen to it for a minute and go, 'Oh, wait a minute, that's 'Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,'' because at first, it sounds like one of our songs. It has our personality, that's what I love about it.