Given the band members' day jobs, it's a minor miracle that
Not only does the quartet have a new studio album — "Somewhere Down the Road" — but it's a two-CD set comprising 22 original songs. One disc emphasizes the band's fascination with '60s L.A. rock and British Invasion music, and the other skews toward its penchant for roots-country music.
And that's not all.
"We have five more albums in the can," said bassist-songwriter J.D. Andrew at a nondescript rehearsal space in North Hollywood just before the group was starting a monthlong run of shows through the Southwest, concluding with a Southern California stop Saturday in Temecula. Andrew co-produced the album with lead singer and drummer Bud Thornton, better known to most people as actor-writer-director Billy Bob Thornton when he's not busy with the Boxmasters.
"We record constantly," said Thornton, 59, after being the last to arrive for the rehearsal. He was all apologies — not a whiff of Hollywood ego in the air — explaining he'd gotten stuck in late-afternoon traffic trying to make his away across the L.A. Basin. While awaiting Thornton's arrival, lead guitarist Brad Davis sat on an equipment case in the hallway and picked a fleet acoustic rendition of the Stanley Brothers' bluegrass classic "A Man of Constant Sorrow."
"I'll come into a session and these guys will be playing songs I've never even heard," interjected keyboardist Teddy Andreadis, a busy session player in addition to his role in the Boxmasters. "I'll say, 'When did you guys write this? I haven't been gone that long!'"
If there were ever suspicions that the band was a vanity or novelty side project for Thornton, those suspicions have been dismissed after three solid studio albums — 2008's "The Boxmasters"; a witty holiday album, "Christmas Cheer"; and "Modbilly" in 2009. The group gives Thornton a way to exercise the love for music that gripped him long before he ventured into acting, which he has said he fell into unintentionally.
Besides, there's a natural connection between the two avenues of creative exploration, one that's often evident in Thornton's evocative lyrics. There's a cinematic observer's eye at work in "Away, Away," which opens the album's atmospheric second disc, a song Thornton and Andrew wrote with steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse:
Wonder where that old smokin' truck is goin'
How much longer will that one taillight keep glowin'
How much pain has that tied-down mattress bedded
Where are that couple and those hollow-eyed children headed
The Boxmasters have little interest in songs about tailgate parties and leggy girls in cutoff jeans that often top the sales charts and commercial country radio playlists. Such songs, Andrew said, "are just denying what's going on in the world every chance they get."
Instead, they're working in the tradition of musical mavericks such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, surveying the world for stories of ordinary people. Sometimes, as in "Away, Away," it's to empathize with those who are struggling; in others, such as "What Did You Do Today," it's to challenge them to take responsibility for making a change:
Did you put all your thoughts together
And sit down and write a letter
Did you do anything tonight to make it better?
The latter, however, is not likely to be on the set list when the Boxmasters open for ZZ Top for a couple of dates. Thornton said they work from a variety of set lists depending on the size of the venue and the audience, which vary from rock clubs to venues such as the Monte de Oro Winery in Temecula.
This year, they said they plan to use the group's website to give their hardcore fans access to more of the still-unreleased material that's been piling up, as well as reissues of the four solo albums Thornton recorded from 2001 to 2007.
It's a balancing act, Thornton said, between wanting to share the multiple facets of the group's music with the public without oversaturating the market.
After releasing three albums on the folk-country Vanguard Records label, the Boxmasters recently signed with 101 Ranch Records. The Nashville-based boutique label is run by singer and songwriter Mark Collie, best known for his 1992 country hit "Even the Man in the Moon Is Crying," and his wife, Tammy, whom Thornton said have encouraged his group to follow their muse rather than chasing the latest trends.
"The thing about current Nashville ... is that it's a hit-making town," Thornton said. "Everybody goes in to write a hit. Well, how do you do that? You copy that guy's hit. As a result, for 20 years they've been doing the same song.
"There are a few people — Mark and Dwight [Yoakam] and two or three other guys maybe — Marty [Stuart], Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale — that still do what they always did," he said. "There are some people that still write from their heart and soul and don't do it to make another Hula Hoop or tube of toothpaste or whatever it is they're manufacturing."
Billy Bob Thornton & the Boxmasters
Where: Monte de Oro Winery, 35820 Rancho California Road, Temecula
When: 7 p.m. Saturday