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Billy Bob Country

1. Billy Bob, Billy Bob. How much cooler can you get? In the mostly pathetic pantheon of movie types who grab a mike and a guitar, saunter onstage with an All-Star pick-up band and think they're rock stars, Thornton rates highly - a near-miss. And that makes him the best member of that company I've ever heard. Way, way better than someone like Keanu Reeves, and not just because Billy Bob plays thoughtful alternative country instead of Keanu's party-on alternative rock, although it helps. No, it's more because he brings that same kind of barely un-ironic, effortless redneck intellectualism that I love from his best movie roles into his songs as well. Billy Bob's the real deal - if he could sing just a little bit better he'd make a pretty good living out on the high-end country bar and festival circuit.

billy_bob.jpgListening to his fourth album, Beautiful Door, and the podcasts he's done to accompany it, the Billy Bob music experience is actually much more Jim Reeves than Keanu, at least as far his songs' channelings go. Like Jim Reeves (whom Thornton counts as one of his earliest musical influences), most of his compositions are meandering and reflective, and at the same time moody, frequently somber, and tinged with angry political lyrics that liberal alt-country types can get behind. Billy Bob's singing voice is not what I'd call professional quality, though. Tantalizingly close, but no cigar, I'm afraid.

And in that purely technical sense, what works for him in the movies doesn't quite translate into similar success for what he says is his true passion, music. From many of his best film roles, we know that his style often features lots of emotional repression, sometimes almost comically so (see The Man Who Wasn't There, for example). In these movies, he usually bottles up his feelings until at some point they all come out in shrieking, terrifying bursts. The problem with doing that in music is that country songs are like three-minute short subjects instead of feature films . . . no time for the kind of lengthy character development that is tolerable onscreen thanks to various forms of eye candy and storytelling magic. On record, an emotionally restrained singing voice is a tough trick to pull off - I'm not saying alt-country singers have to gush to be good, but in general, I think, it's an art form where the emotion kind of needs to be much closer to the surface.

Unless, of course, you're Kris Kristofferson, whom Billy Bob also identifies as an early taste, along with the usual assortment of Sun Records giants (Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and later, the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five, because Clark, like Billy Bob, was a drummer who led a band). Billy Bob's a crackerjack drummer whose work on the skins pretty much shines, while his whole persona as a singer/songwriter really resonates on a Kristofferson level to me. He's got the same kind of low-key, rough-edged delivery and lyrics dripping with stoned-out, bittersweet wisdom on the full range of country music topics: busted romance, battles with the bottle, the political plight of the powerless, and occasionally the cultural imperative of hell-raising. It feels like it should work but it doesn't, although it comes about as close as a movie star has gotten so far, I believe.

Even so, you could do worse than Beautiful Door if you're in the mood for a pensive trip down the spooky side of alt country.

2. Remember last May when I talked about Clear Channel making a rare move-against-type by taking one of most venerable, most formulaic classic rocks stations in the country, Dallas' KZPS-FM, and turning it over to an eclectic alt-country/Texas roots rock format? I applauded that move with the hopes that Clear Channel and the handful of other giant corporate radio chain owners are learning something from the Internet music revolution - namely, that music fans are tuning out for good reason. Their microscopic playlists are killing terrestrial radio dead.

There are high hopes for the new Lone Star 92.5. If it succeeds in attracting even a few listeners with its adventurous record choices and its "no spots" advertising style, Clear Channel is likely to invest more resources into an effort to develop eclectic niche formats, which for the most part it's targeting for HD Radio side-channels but could, as is the case with Lone Star 92.5, move over to the big stage.

fandango.jpgSo it's pretty cool that the station's first big event went swimmingly last month. Its Lone Star Fandango concert attracted 12,000 fans (many, I'm sure, lured by dinosaurs ZZ Top, but still . . . ), and its bill featured the kinds of deserving bands who have always been relegated to the sidelines thanks to the policies of companies like Clear Channel. I also like that ZZ Top, even though they're relics of the stadium-rock 70s, are still hip enough to embrace and help champion a new generation of country rock outcasts and are willing to help torpedo those selfsame tiny playlists that have kept them in beard pomade for decades.

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

"If anyone thought Lone Star KZPS/92.5's format change from classic rock to Texas roots rock was going to bomb, Sunday's Lone Star Fandango concert reiterated the opposite: People are sick and tired of hearing Boston.

"With a crowd of about 12,000 at Smirnoff Music Centre, it's safe to say that the Fandango, the station's obligatory fan-appreciation summer concert, was a gratifying success - gratifying for them because it drew so many people, gratifying for the audience because the lineup was so good.

"The bands mirrored the station's playlist: Perennial Houston faves ZZ Top headlined a mostly Texas bill that also featured the Old 97's and Eleven Hundred Springs from Dallas, the Drams from Denton, and Shooter Jennings, the son of Littlefield-born Waylon. But even the non-Texans - David Allan Coe, Bottle Rockets and Drive-By Truckers - sound like they're from Texas.

"And who turned out for the show? Who's listening, in other words, to Lone Star? It was as if a few John Mayer fans got lost and stumbled into a Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. Guys in polo shirts were sitting next to guys in no shirts. Cologne mixed pleasantly with body odor."

OK, I was alright up until that "cologne and body odor" part. Maybe it's a Texas thing?

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Posted on August 15, 2007


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POLITICS - Charter Schools Complicit With Segregation.
SPORTS - USA Gymnastics Bans Illinois Coach.

BOOKS - The Randomness Of Harvard Admissions.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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