W.R. “Bud” Thornton, better known to Christmas haters and aficionados of French-fried pertaters as Billy Bob, always really wanted to be a musician. The story of the poor, starving rocker plucked from obscurity to sell himself in the cold climes of Hollywood is claimed by everyone from Johnny Depp to Keanu Reeves, and Joaquin Phoenix has recently attempted a sort of bizarro version with his rap career, but most of the musical output from this camp sounds suspiciously like it’s coming from actors trying their best to play musicians.
Thornton stands apart. When he plays with the Boxmasters, Billy Bob Thornton the actor ceases to exist. He is replaced by Bud the drummer, who combines with bassist J.D. Andrew and guitarist Mike Butler to deliver their collective — and decidedly skewed — perspective on traditional American music. Modbilly, the Boxmaster’s third set, continues to rewrite the history of rockabilly music, bringing a current sense of cynicism to the perfect pop hooks of yesteryear.
The set, as with the previous Boxmaster’s collection, is divided between original compositions and the band’s take on standards by artists including Roger Miller and the Rolling Stones. Thornton’s distinct voice continues to be a nice fit with the material, and the band ably backs his play with inventive arrangements of the familiar songs. Particularly compelling is “Gentle on My Mind,” which adds a little weight to the more feathery version popularized by Glen Campbell, and “Santa Rosa,” which stands up easily to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s original.
The proof that the Boxmasters are for real, however, is found in the set of original songs, where the band’s black sense of humor is given free rein. “Reasons for Livin’” is an uncompromising look at making the choice between prolonging your life or enjoying it, and “That’s Why Tammy Has My Car” would have been made into a sitcom if it had been recorded in the ’70s. Though there are some uneven points, particularly when Thornton tries to project straight pathos or regret, the Boxmasters prove once again that they are much more than a celebrity vanity project.