The Starlight Lounge is a familiar archetype in the American imagination—a poorly lit bar with red velvet-textured wallpaper, where the stale air is thick with cigarette smoke and spilled beer. At the Starlight Lounge, you’ll find an assortment of down-and-outers “dressed up . . . with no place to go . . . twist[ing] the truth & whisper[ing] love / Through hot, red smoke in a dirty booth”. The Starlight Lounge becomes an emblematic gathering place for the characters we meet in Billy Bob Thornton’s debut CD, Private Radio: the disaffected and the marginalized, who meet to swap their stories and the stories of those sometimes odd, unusual, and eccentric people they’ve met along the way.
Having established a notable career as an actor, director, and screenwriter, Billy Bob Thornton’s incarnation as a musician, singer, and songwriter on Private Radio may surprise some people. But then again, perhaps not. Another CD by yet another actor—nothing surprising about that, really. Over the last several years, we’ve witnessed popular actors testing the musical waters, as well as some successful singers and musicians crossing over to the big screen. One major difference between Thornton and other actors-turned-musicians, though, is that rather than charting new territory, Thornton is returning to his first love as an artist: music. Before he considered becoming an actor, Thornton made a record as the drummer in Tres Hombres, a band inspired primarily by ZZ-Top. With the country, blues, rock-infused Private Radio—his first release as a solo artist—Thornton is well on his way to becoming a musical success story.
Thornton’s success as an actor has allowed him to make some important connections in the world of music, and he uses these to his advantage on Private Radio. In addition to producing Private Radio, Thornton’s pal and country music great Marty Stuart co-wrote a majority of the songs with Thornton and plays mandolin, guitar, and bass on several tracks. Singer/songwriters Dwight Yoakam and Holly Lamar share songwriting credits with Thornton on “Starlight Lounge”, and Randy Scruggs—son of legendary bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs—co-wrote “Angelina” with Thornton, in addition to playing guitar and bass on the song about Thornton’s much publicized relationship with his wife, actress Angelina Jolie.
“Angelina”, the CD’s first single, is the track most likely to become a “hit” with popular music audiences. Thornton’s answer to those media naysayers who have predicted that his marriage won’t last, “Angelina” is a catchy love song that pits the lovers against the world: “They all said we’d never make it / Two crazy panthers on the prowl / They said we would only take it for awhile / But we just looked at them and growled”. In the liner notes, Thornton describes the song as “the story of how I met the Love of my Life. Without her I wouldn’t exist”. Considering the publicity surrounding this unconventional union of two self-described eccentrics, audiences should be well primed to receive Thornton’s musical response. “Your Blue Shadow” thematically echoes “Angelina”, with the speaker declaring that “I can’t forget about you, so why even try”. The twang-edged guitars of “Blue Shadow” provide the bluesy backdrop for the singers’ meditation on the mystery of love.
Many of the characters we meet in Private Radio would fit easily into one of Thornton’s movies (i.e., Sling Blade, U-Turn, and A Simple Plan), where we often find the surreal, bizarre, and sometimes grotesque: a woman in a sleazy motel room, rising from the “dusty bed” of a one-night stand (“Walk of Shame”); an agoraphobic who is aware of his madness but unable to do anything about it (“Dark and Mad”); a hippie stoner who lies around in bed all day listening to the Byrds (“Smoking in Bed”); and an 87-year-old woman who has “never set foot / Out of the poor valley holler” (“That Mountain”). Above all, it is the beautiful weirdness of these characters that draws us in as listeners. Deeply rooted in Southern gothic and oral traditions—Thornton grew up in rural Arkansas—Thornton has a gift for storytelling and exploring the unusual in what may first appear to be the most mundane of circumstances.
Sometimes Thornton’s stories are funny. Take, for example, a guy talking on his cell phone at a Waffle House in Texarkana (“Forever”). This all seems pretty ordinary until you listen in on the guy’s conversation. Talking to his lover on the phone, he promises to see her soon, and this time to stay “forever . . . And ever, and ever”. All of this seems pretty clichéd, really, until we find out that he’s wearing “them drawers you left in the car / Yeah, the ones with the pink feathers around the edge”. Driving down the road, “wearin’ pink panties / And under the influence of Merle Haggard”, he is pulled over by a cop for “look[ing] like the kind of guy that might / Be hidin’ somethin’”.
At other times, though, what’s beneath the surface isn’t funny at all. In the haunting, spoken-word “Beauty at the Back Door” the speaker looks back on a childhood experience through his adult eyes. Thinking back on his boyhood home, the speaker transforms the apparently innocent landscape of “a crepe myrtle bush and a little ole dried up garden and some woods way on back” into a minefield of sexual taboo. As a young boy, he’d often noticed the beautiful, teen-aged “Carbor girl”, as she’d make her way down the road to his house. He was never quite sure what she wanted, standing there at the back door of the house, while he and his father would watch her. One day, his father goes off “into the green” with the girl. Later, he sees his father and the girl “c[ome] back out,” with his “daddy walkin’ way ahead of her . . . . He acted like he didn’t want to have anything to do with her”, and the young boy wonders why things are different now. “Why would you be so happy going in and so down coming out. I don’t know. That’s what I thought then. He didn’t act like she was so pretty no more”. As an adult thinking back to this incident, the storyteller says, “Now I think I get it”. Still, though, there’s an uncertainty hanging in the air. What exactly did he see? His father returning home after molesting a teen-aged girl? A sexually experienced girl’s seduction of his father? We’re never really sure, and the speaker probably isn’t sure, either. You never know what you may find when you reexamine something from your past, when you look beneath the surface to see what’s underneath appearances. The reexamination of memory and moving beyond appearances (and the songs and narratives that these experiences help produce) are ultimately rewarding.
Private Radio will certainly find its audience, and this audience most definitely will not consist of your typical Top 40 radio listeners, hot country music consumers, or those otherwise engaged in listening to or purchasing the music of the moment for one main reason: Private Radio doesn’t quite fit into a convenient, ready-made category. The most appropriate description of Thornton’s music is probably “alternative country”, which consists of titles that fall through the cracks of commercial radio. Is it country? Is it pop? Is it blues? Clearly drawing his influences from all of these genres, Billy Bob Thornton has made a record that makes us think a little bit about the differences that make the world interesting. Appropriately, “Lost Highway” (a song Hank Williams made famous) is the record’s last track. It’s time for the storyteller to leave the Starlight Lounge and hit the road again, in search of new people and experiences for new songs.