Billy Bob Thornton’s latest nostalgia trip inspires nostalgia for his previous albums.
In a failed attempt to disguise his identity, The Boxmasters list frontman Billy Bob Thornton under the moniker W.R. (as in William Robert…get it?) “Bud” Thornton. But there's no mistaking the voice: it's either the guy who starred in Bad Santa or the worst Michael Nesmith impersonator ever. Actually, it's kind of both.
Unlike other moonlighting actors, Thornton’s musical career has gained a degree of credibility. As a solo singer-songwriter, he has worked with genre-spanning heavyweights from Warren Zevon to Billy Gibbons to Marty Stuart. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his music, but nothing particularly offensive either, certainly not when measured against other movie star-cum-musicians. The Boxmasters changes all that. Its only notable achievement is a dubious one: it actually undermines Billy Bob Thornton’s musical reputation.
From George Jones to Josh Turner, the greatest country voices can sell even the goofiest schlock. Thornton does not have this advantage. Kindly put, he can’t sing. His voice is wooden and overly affected, too often shaky and tentative, lacking the charm or conviction of a Buck Owens or Roy Acuff, ill-suited for these Bakersfield-periphery arrangements. Instead, he sounds like a hacky MADtv caricature used to broadly and cluelessly lampoon old-time country music. The other two Boxmasters, J.D. Andrews and Mike Butler, do most of the musical heavy-lifting: Butler even contributes a blazing dobro solo to the otherwise rote bluegrass wannabe “That Mountain”. But Thornton (who plays drums) is clearly the star here, and his sidemen don’t get in his way, often to everyone’s detriment.
Thornton’s songwriting can be occasionally impressive, but only two of these songs (“The Poor House”, “20 Years Ago”) would be worth salvaging with better performers. More often, his treatment of women suggests the slimeball persona cultivated on the big screen (see School for Scoundrels, Mr. Woodcock) may be more than just an act. Here, his songs are free of genuine romance and stained with brutish misogyny. This guy is a raging, selfish letch, and unwaveringly proud of it. The closest thing to a straight-up love song is titled “Shit List”. “I'll Give You a Ring” is full of middle-school-level dick jokes: the second verse hinges on “sack” and “package” puns, the chorus on the line, “I’ll give you a ring when you give me back my balls”. The pointless 90-second interlude “2-Bit Grifter” opens with this subtle indictment: “You’re one of those horrible bitches that eats whatever is in your way”. The whole album revels in an unjustified pathological contempt for women that no country singer, past or present, would dare exhibit. Worst of all is “I'm Watchin' the Game”, a tuneless gripe that would shame even Trace Adkins. Sample lines: “Stop tellin’ me stuff/ Quit askin’ me shit/ Can’t you see I’m watchin’ the game…If the Cardinals lose, you’ll be the one to blame”. No wonder Angelina left his ass.
Were the originals not bad enough, The Boxmasters squander any remaining goodwill with a second disc, a covers disc, eleven silly botches that wouldn’t pass muster on Golden Throats, versions that most competent bar bands would find laughable. The Boxmasters’ take on “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” ought to redeem fallen American Idol Kristy Lee Cook’s widely panned rodeo version of “Eight Days a Week”, as “Hand” is way too big for Thornton’s limited voice. They also tackle songs popularized by Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb, plus two Michael Nesmith compositions that spotlight Thornton’s truest influence (though he’s got miles to go before writing, or even singing, like the former Monkee). Classic murder ballad “Knoxville Girl” and the honky-tonk joke “She’s Lookin’ Better by the Minute” continue the whole drinkin’-cheatin’-bettin’-fuckin’ motifs. In light of this, the “House at Pooh Corner” cover is supposed to be ironic, but it just seems arbitrary and makes you wish you were listening to Kenny Loggins instead.
It is conceivable that all this is tongue-in-cheek, but that only makes it worse. For one thing, it's not funny, at least not to anyone who's matured beyond fart jokes. Any fun it pokes is not gentle or affectionate, but bitter and nasty. Despite Thornton’s relatively humble background, it too often sounds like a rich guy shitting on country’s longtime working class constituency. There's no sympathy, simply mockery, the kind of bourgeois superiority that reactionary cable news pundits so often pin on Hollywood. Furthermore, it doesn’t just misinterpret, but eviscerates the country music Thornton professes to love: recasting complicated men as irredeemable drunken oafs. That might work for a movie character, but in the more personalized musical world, where first-person authenticity is often assumed, it’s just unappealing. Perhaps W.R. “Bud” Thornton is just another character, but he couldn’t carry a movie and he certainly can’t carry a double album, not with this voice and this attitude.
Thus, Boxmasters works neither as parody nor homage. It doesn’t even really work as a vanity project. This is a record where the performers have infinitely more fun than the listeners. The Boxmasters are like a couple guys knocking back brewskis and having an impromptu drunken jam session: pleasant for them, but for any non-friends listening in, off-putting and insufferable. And whatever its rhyme or reason, the music produced is largely horrible, little more than an obnoxious novelty unworthy of a second listen or even a second thought.