Most people are probably unaware that Academy Award–winning actor Billy Bob Thornton is an accomplished drummer. Playing since the age of nine, Thornton leads a band called The Boxmasters. A homage to his ’60s youth and hillbilly roots The Boxmasters play originals and cover tunes, including countrified versions of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” Thornton handles all the drums on the record, as well as lead vocals.
On tour, he leaves most of the drumming up to Mike Bruce so he can come out front to handle the vocals. Thornton started out on Ludwigs as a kid, a red-sparkle four-piece kit with a ride cymbal, and graduated to Slingerlands which he continues to play to this day. He sets up his four-piece similar to how Buddy Rich did with all of the drums and cymbals positioned low and flat.
Thornton lives by the mantra “Play for the song.” In a 2008 interview for Modern Drummer he said, “It’s not to go back there and show off. The idea is to feel the song. If you’re paying too much attention to a click or to your time, sometimes the feel can get lost. The idea is to play to the click, but ignore it as much as possible.”
Thornton credits drumming for bringing him out to LA in the first place. Originally he started out in the early 80’s playing drums and singing in a band called Tres Hombres. In 1985, Thornton joined the South African rock band Jack Hammer. It was then he claims to have accidentally become a movie star.
In 2001, Thornton released an album titled Private Radio. Then The Edge of the World (2003), Hobo (2005) and Beautiful Door (2007). With The Boxmasters he has released The Boxmasters (2008), Christmas Cheer (2008), Modbilly (2009), Somewhere Down the Road (2015), Providence (2015), Boys and Girls… And the World (2016), Tea Surfing (2016) and In Stereo! (2018). Today he only does two movies a year so he has time to record and tour.
Here’s Billy playing live:
It seems like you can’t go anywhere on the internet today without finding a new scandal surrounding someone wearing blackface. Politicians, entertainers, fashion designers and even law enforcement officials are being identified every day for wearing blackface makeup for a variety of reasons. All of them wore blackface in the past and didn’t think it was offensive. Now they are being identified using photographs they never thought would backfire on them. Obviously they are asking for forgiveness. It’s not difficult to acknowledge that this is deplorable behavior and has no place in a society that prides itself on equality. Blackface was a racist practice prior to the Civil Rights era and was used to dehumanize African-Americans and entertain white society. Minstrel shows were the main promoter of the practice which was performed on stages around the world. It is still practiced in some countries.
Many musicians wore blackface and performed music on stage and in parades. Many of their performances were captured on film and they were played in theaters for predominantly white audiences. Drummers were included among the blackface musicians although it is difficult to find any photographic evidence singling out a drummer. I was able to find this autographed photo. The autograph appears to say “Jack Russell.” You will notice that he plays a kit consisting of a snare, bass drum and two cymbals. He also uses a regular chair to sit in. I cannot tell if he has a bass drum pedal or if he used the “double-drumming” approach in which he played both the snare and bass drum with sticks. It is difficult to determine the exact year of the photograph but based upon the set-up I would venture to say it was taken in the early 1900s.
In honor of Black History Month, here are two brilliant drum solos by my favorite drummer Papa Jo Jones. His technique and creativity is extraordinary. Jones influenced many drummers both black and white. Many copped his tricks.
As morning broke shadows awoke from their twilight slumber and began to stretch their limbs in acknowledgment of the recurring day. Below in the valley, an army was also just beginning to stir. Many soldiers however, did not share nature’s sentiments in welcoming back another sunrise. Exhausted, homesick and terribly traumatized by the horrors they had witnessed on the battlefield, the promise of another day was nothing more than prolonged suffering. After all, weeks had turned into months, months had turned into years, and no end appeared in sight. Many felt as if they had been on campaign forever. Most were only able to find a sense of peace and comfort while sleeping. That is, when they could sleep.
Looking more dead than alive, they were now faded memories of the vibrant men they had once been. Long gone was the patriotism and thrill of recruitment parades and brand new uniforms. No longer were they believers in the promise of adventure or the romance of war. Emerging from their weathered tents, some struck fires as the smell of stale coffee began to permeate the air. The gentle sounds of the surrounding countryside gave way to the neighing of irritated horses. As they began their daily rituals, muskets were inspected, swords were sheathed and once pristine jackets were pulled on over dirty white shirts and tattered suspenders.
The stillness of the morning was broken by the sound of a long roll acting as reveille calling the men to attention. Ironically it was the responsibility of boys to command these men to muster. Boys who had marched off to participate in a man’s conflict. The army relied on the services of these boys as musicians and as communicators. Just like their counterparts, they were regulars. Military divisions had multiple drummers spread throughout their ranks. They suffered the same hardships as the men.
Whether playing a monotonous cadence to keep men moving while on long marches, long rolls to call men to assemble in the mornings, or booming signals to communicate for their officers on the battlefield the skill at which the drummers played was far too often overlooked. Drummer boys during the Civil War were required to play 26 rudiments. The courage at which this had to be done was also neglected as the youthful age of these boys paled in comparison to the men they served. The precarious risk at which they put themselves in was often equal to that of their elders and when they were not acting in the role of musician they served as stretcher bearers witnessing firsthand the horrors of war and the carnage it inflicted on those who fell.
As rows of anxious soldiers took the field drummers played the Call to Battle to keep them assembling and in step. Lining up the rank and file the daring infantry waited for the signal to move forward. Standing by the officers on the field the drummer boys managed to maintain their composure despite their obvious fear and provide critical communications to gesture movement. The scent of smoke filled the air and permeated their already dusty clothes. Once fully engaged they often moved to the rear, exchanging their drums for makeshift stretchers. From then on they struggled to maintain their composure as they carried their bloody comrades off the field. Perhaps that was their greatest challenge of all. Whether drumming on the march or bearing the wounded these courageous boys quickly grew up in a man’s war. They had to.
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