Hillbilly Bob tonight

There’s a Seinfeldian moment in the song “I’m Watching the Game,” when listeners sink past the electric hillbilly trappings straight to the comedy roots. The idea of a husband wanting to shut out the world—including his wife—to pour every ounce of emotion and attention into the big game on TV is effective because it is funny, and it is funny because it is true. Plus the song’s author, Billy Bob Thornton, is shooting from the hip. Thornton’s band, The Boxmasters, perform this month at The Varsity, and his tour bus has satellite TV so even on his extensive summer tour he can follow his beloved Cardinals.

One can imagine the inattentive sports fan of “I’m Watching the Game” as the same guy in the opening track of Thornton’s new Vanguard Records album, The Boxmasters. “Poor House” tells of a dim-witted, working-class father who makes terrible decisions with the family’s money, but loves them the best he can. Considering this and the blatant, blue-collar honesty elsewhere on the record, a pattern emerges. If you had only seen Thornton’s movies and read his interviews and closed your eyes to imagine what his music would be like, it would sound eerily similar to The Boxmasters in your head.

A native of Hot Springs, Ark., the 52-year-old actor and his brother grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood. They were oddballs who loved the cutting sarcasm of Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention and the Southern Gothic satire of Erskine Caldwell and John Faulkner. Now Thornton, too, fuses his hard luck songs with a dash of wit.

“If a movie is too overdramatic or a comedy is too goofy without any heart, then it is inaccessible,” Thornton says. “In the same way, music has to have both (drama and humor) to be real and honest. I naturally lean toward humor, even with dark subjects, you know, Sling Blade was like that.”

A labor of love for Thornton, he wrote, directed and starred in 1996’s Sling Blade. The film won him an Academy Award—plus loads of indie street cred—and made Thornton an overnight A-lister in Hollywood.

Thornton had scrounged Los Angeles since the early 1980s, playing supporting roles in TV and film, and pursuing his first love, music. Back then, he says, few doors were open to upstart country rock bands like the one he had in mind. “That was the height of the hair band era,” he says. “And you had to have makeup and black finger nails to get anywhere.”

But everything changed with Sling Blade. The film propelled Thornton’s acting and screenwriting career, giving him the breathing room to make the music he wanted. After a string of solo records, Thornton collaborated with guitarist J.D. Andrew to form The Boxmasters, a Kinks and Beatles-loving mod country outfit, complete with matching gray suits and a post-Sinatra swagger. Thornton calls it “electric hillbilly music” with pride. The vintage-loving band signed with Vanguard Records and inked a deal to be the face of Dell Lounge, the computer maker’s new online depot for music and videos.

“That’s the ironic thing, our whole band is based on 1964, but we’re sponsored by a computer company,” Thornton says with a laugh. “But when we agreed to work with Dell Lounge, we thought if record stores are dying, let’s make the Dell Lounge and everything we put on it feel like a record store.”

For Thornton, it seems, The Boxmasters can go anywhere from here. No idea is impossible. This enthusiasm for the band must stem from the actor’s newfound musical contentment.

“I listen back to my earlier records, and those had songs that were all over the place,” he says. “With this band and with this record I’ve finally found my voice as an artist after all these years. It’s The Beatles and Buck Owens, you know. It’s 1964. It’s Shindig!”

The band’s double-disc self-titled release is a lively set of originals with a helping of both classic and obscure songs from the 1960s. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” from The Beatles and “The Kids Are Alright” by The Who are among the covers, each funneled like moonshine through the backwoods, electric hillbilly sound of The Boxmasters.

Thornton will spend the summer touring with the band, but has a busy year ahead. His assassination thriller Eagle Eye hits theaters this fall, and in 2009 he stars in Tony Gilroy’s post-Michael Clayton con flick Duplicity opposite Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, and reunites with Monster’s Ball co-star Halle Berry for the legal drama Tulia. Despite his active slate, Thornton vows to balance his future music and film projects.

“If I can do one independent movie and one big budget movie a year to pay for the house and kids, and then record as we go along and tour every summer, that’s a pretty full life,” Thornton says. “I do love movies and music equally, but music is at the forefront of my passion right now.” theboxmasters.com