“Where was that, Where’d I go
Never been there before
But it was beautiful
I needed it, it opened the door…”
“A Big Sunshine”
–Billy Bob Thornton/J.D. Andrew
Tonight’s show in Liverpool, England, at the Cavern Club, counts as one of the final dates on Billy Bob Thornton and The Boxmasters’ glorious 2023 world tour. The Cavern Club is, of course, the birthplace of the Beatles. The band traveled through the US playing about forty shows over eight weeks and now the European leg of their world tour comes to an end. What a run. I submit a few recollections from my own Boxmasters experience in Georgia.
Summer began in May when my daughter graduated from college and entered grad school. Liz and I then traveled to Los Angeles–mostly Topanga Canyon, Woodland Hills and Malibu. While in California, I requested an interview with L.A. resident Billy Bob Thornton. His band the Boxmasters released a new album, 69, that week and were about to go on tour, so I thought it would be a good time for an interview. On Monday, June 5, I interviewed Billy Bob Thornton and J.D. Andrew about the new album, touring, songwriting, Bob Dylan and beyond.
The morning Liz and I were about to drive up the road to see the Boxmasters–June 13–in Springfield, Georgia, I was received a call that my friend Don Rhodes–the nationally renowned music writer–had passed away the prior Friday, June 9. Don and I spoke after I returned from L.A, and we planned to meet in Augusta later in the summer. Don wrote a blurb for my latest book, Ghostland America. Terrible news. Don’s death brought back a hollow feeling of losing other friends in the last few years, among them Daniel Hutchens, Todd Nance and Michael “Buffalo” Smith. Buffalo introduced me to Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters in 2007, and his absence felt acute as we embarked on our Boxmasters road trip.
We met up with the Boxmasters in Springfield, Georgia, for the Mars Theatre show. Just as I received a text from J.D. Andrew, the co-founder/guitarist, to meet by the tour bus at 4PM, the news broke that Cormac McCarthy died at 89 of natural causes in his New Mexico home that day. Walking up to the side of the theater, McCarthy’s passing was the first topic I mentioned to Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton directed the critically acclaimed film, All The Pretty Horses, based on the author’s book.
“Today?” he asked.
“Yeah, this morning.”
“Wow. Let’s get’s out of the heat.”
Billy Bob “Bud” Thornton walked us back to the Mars Theatre’s green room. I gave Bud and J.D. copies of all of my books. “Cool, I need some reading material on the road”, J.D. said. Bud introduced us to everyone in the band and the crew. He spent over an hour hanging out with us. I asked him about the times he met Cormac McCarthy revolving around All The Pretty Horses. A first-rate storyteller, he shared several notable encounters with McCarthy, providing rare insights into the reclusive author.
Our freewheeling, light-hearted conversation covered a wide range of topics: Los Angeles, the 69 tour, writing, finks, recent graduations, guitars, Texas, and upcoming on goings. We talked about things I didn’t ask in our initial interview. Liz’s father had been recently hospitalized, and we told Bud he was a fan. So, of course, Bud had no problem with me taking a photo of him and Liz for her father. At one point, Liz and Bud were discussing her profession, and he said: “I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on TV”, referring to his role in Goliath, which made us laugh. I mentioned how punishing the Boxmasters tour dates looked.
“Yes, this is real work. I love it. But when I do movies, it’s like a vacation. I’m staying in a really nice place, get to bring my family and watch baseball at night,” he laughed.
The band and their crew emit a family-like vibe and were very welcoming and kind to us. Great guys. Later, we met guitarist Kirk McKim across the street at the little taco joint where he was having a pre-show meal. A high-grade rock show at a historic venue in a rural town is a rare formula for precipitating timeless connections. During the course of the evening, we became acquainted with Savannah WJLC newscaster “Big Frank” Sulkowski, Pennsylvania-based fans Bill & Jenn and musician Tony Bullard. The Boxmasters performance proved stellar, and the acoustics in the restored 1947 Mars Theatre sounded surprisingly amazing. Their music transfers well to a live audience.
Thornton’s emotive vocals and stage presence cause the listener to hang on every lyric. At one point during the tour, the band performed thirteen straight nights. The Boxmasters rank as top-shelf professionals: J.D. has won three Grammy awards. Kirk served as Pat Travers’ lead guitarist for twelve years, and Raymond has played bass in Dolly Parton’s band for over twenty years.
After the show, I watched J.D. and Bud stand outside of the Mars Theatre in a hot, dusty parking lot signing autographs and taking pictures with bashful fans until they all went home. The fans’ joyous expressions proved moving–each person felt special. The gesture spoke volumes. Bud did not have to make that effort, but I know he does for every show, in every town.
We approached after the post-show crowd had thinned, and Bud gave both Liz and I a hug goodnight in the empty grass lot next to the theatre where their buses sat idling. I told him we’d see them at tomorrow’s show. Departing Springfield, we drove several hours through the dark to Liz’s farm outside of Athens, GA. We agreed it was a singular day.
“Look back, Look ahead
Or simply take a look at now instead
Then open your eyes…”
“Take It Inside”
–Billy Bob Thornton/J.D. Andrew
The following day, we traveled to Woodstock, Georgia, on the edge of the Atlanta suburbs for the next Boxmasters show at MadLife Stage & Studios. The vibe was different there–a little more electric. I ran into Bud early just as we pulled up to MadLife. “Good to see ya again today, James!”, he hollered while waving. Since we hung out the prior night, I didn’t want to delay his sound check, impose or draw attention to him. We sort of tipped our hats acknowledging the situation. A gathering crowd was already milling around.
The scene felt more crowded, rock & roll-ish and energetic compared to the small town of Springfield (both shows were sold out). MadLife’s bar and restaurant is located on Main Street in downtown Woodstock. The concert venue comprises the back of the building. The three big tour buses parked in the lot, and Billy Bob Thornton’s name on the marquee, attracted passersby and show-goers alike, all loitering outside hoping for an encounter. Not a shy crowd…
I drank a beer. I thought of the previous day when I asked Bud as we stood outside the Mars Theatre if he read his press. “When it’s written by somebody cool like you.” When a serious talent such as Billy Bob Thornton pays you a compliment, it resonates. It’s weird, true artists like Billy Bob Thornton, Colonel Bruce Hampton, and Don Rhodes praise my work, but easy-to-spot artistic posers try to steal, imitate, or ignore it. Content is king, folks. I watched a guy bang on the tour bus door and bum a cigarette from Bud. I know so well at the highest level sometimes great artists endure indifference, presumption and even insult.
We hung out with Bill and Jenn before the show. We met the inveterate traveler Jess Modbilly. I shot the breeze with Rick Richards from the Georgia Satellites and Izzy Stradlin’s JuJu Hounds. He was a gas. I spoke with Willie Perkins, the Allman Brothers old tour manager, when he walked up to the porch where we sat. I knew Willie back from the early 90s when he managed Bloodkin. I ran into Macon native John Charles Griffin. We also met the photographer Rick Diamond.
A great three-minute narrated Boxmasters video montage opened the show. The Mars Theatre was not equipped for such video projection. I remember, among many songs, the audience really responded to “She Looks Like Betty Page”. The Boxmasters are truly a remarkable group. They play original material from their fourteen albums. Great songwriting–no cover tunes. At MadLife, the audience is in reaching distance of the performers on stage. The musical energy delivered a serious groove on the crowd who stayed on their feet dancing and singing along through the entire show.
We talked with the Boxmasters’ talented drummer–Nick Davidson–after the Woodstock show. He shared the story behind his band-bestowed nickname, Red Panda, and we talked about living in Nashville and his session work. After midnight, the Boxmasters stepped on the tour bus and drove to the next gig in Ocala, Florida. I’d like to send out a personal thanks to Bud, J.D., Kirk, Raymond, Nick and Lucine for the undisputed hospitality.
The next day we visited Liz’s dad for an early Father’s Day lunch. He got a kick out of the photographs from backstage at the Springfield show. After lunch, we drove south to Macon, Georgia, on our way home to the Georgia coast. We visited my friend Chris Patras at his fantastic Greek-style place Popouli’s Mediterranean Cafe . We drove by another friend’s establishment–Kirk West’s–Gallery West, but we just missed operating hours. The legendary H & H Restaurant was also closed for the day. We drove over to the Allman Brothers Museum, the Big House, on Vineville Avenue. Liz never visited the Big House, and I decided it would be a good time to drop in.
Luckily we arrived at the Big House an hour before closing. I bought a copy of the Allman Brothers Band’s Atlanta International Pop Festival 1970. My old friend John Lynskey oversees the museum. I haven’t seen John in twenty years. He operated as my editor when I wrote for the magazine, Hittin’ The Note, that was run out of the Big House in those days. Interesting times.
As the Boxmasters’ tour rolled on, I continued working on two book projects. After Georgia, the Boxmasters played gigs in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Europe dates included Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Liverpool and two final shows in Glasgow. I spoke with Bill V after the US tour. Bill and his wife, Jenn, attended at least half of the US shows. One of his favorite stateside shows was at Knuckleheads Saloon–a biker bar–in a rough part of Kansas City.
Experiencing the Boxmasters musical glory in the face of ongoing work, personal obligations and the eerie realities of our current times served as transcendent positivity. They get my vote for tour of the summer. I hope they film and record tonight’s Cavern Club performance. During our interview, J.D. told me, “We finished three records in April.” So, next year I’m sure they’ll be back.
Meanwhile, explore the Boxmasters stellar discography. Mahalo…
(Photo #1 by Bella Thornton; #2 & 8 by James Calemine; #5 by Connie Thornton; Photo #4 & 9 by Elizabeth Josephine; Photo #3 7 & 10 by Jess Gadicke )