Billy Bob Thornton found religion in front of a TV screen in late winter, 1964. February 9 to be concise. A Sunday night. At 8 p.m. Ed Sullivan opened his weekly variety show with a quartet of musicians from Liverpool in the U.K. The Beatles made their U.S. debut that night. In addition to the opening numbers, the lads from across the pond performed in the second half of the show.
For then nine-year-old Thornton, and thousands of other viewers, they saw the future and it was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, with screaming teenage girls. Most never got close to that vision.
Thornton has. Well, without the screaming teenage girls.
He joined a band here and a band there and released four solo albums before teaming up with J.D. Andrew and forming The Boxmasters in 2007. A band devoted to the 1960s.
The Boxmasters bring their entourage to the Levoy Theatre in Millville on June 21. Expect 90 minutes of tight rock ‘n’ roll music, no covers, not a lot of banter.
J.D. Andrew didn’t need the Fab Four to tell him music was his future. He grew up in a singing family and his school had a strong music program. He plays guitar and adds vocals for The Boxmasters. Thornton sings lead.
Their 14 albums have varying influences from the bygone era: The Mothers of Invention and Kris Kristofferson, for example. But the three biggies are the three Bs: The Byrds, The Beach Boys and, all together now…The Beatles. In May, The Boxmasters dropped their most recent album, simply titled ’69, as in 1969, released on their own label KeenTone Records. Even that has a ring of the golden oldie era. It’s essentially a collection of songs that fit right into the year 1969. “That was how we would write these songs, back then,” Andrew said. “But the lyrics are contemporary,” Thornton adds.
Why so many recordings when sales are passe? Call them love letters to the loyal fans.
“We have super fans from late teens to their 80s,” Thornton says.
With 14 albums to feed off of, the Boxmasters do not include covers to the set list. They released two albums last year, Help…I’m Alive (KeenTone Records, Apr. 15, 2022) and Boxmasters ’66 (KeenTone Records, Dec. 24, 2022)
They bring albums to their shows—including a stack of vinyl—in hopes of selling some to their loyal fan base.
“There is no money with recorded music,” Andrew says.
“It’s not like the old days,” says Thornton, who bought his first 45, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “You never forget the feel of the record.”
It’s the live shows that define The Boxmasters. Shows include Kirk McKim on guitar, Raymond Hardy, bass and Nick Davidson on drums.
They headlined shows and they opened for acts like Steve Miller and ZZ Top. They also performed in bucket list venues. They have the Cavern Club in Liverpool on their itinerary this year, part of a two-week jaunt through Europe, with Bubbles and the Sh*trockers. “It looks good on a logo,” Thornton says.
They played the Grand Ole Opry. Last year they hit the Surf Ballroom, site of Buddy Holly’s last appearance. “We went to the crash site. You get a chill the first time in Surf.”
The setlist rarely varies. “The shows offer a certain confidence,” Thornton says. “The show is pretty tight with built-in segue to the songs.”
Thornton and Andrew spoke on their website about the 2022 release, “Help…I’m Alive.”
“It’s been difficult for people to live in this world for the past few years. Normally you hear someone cry out ‘Help, I’m drowning’ or ‘Help, I’m dying’. This song is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, ‘Wow it sucks being here right now. Help…I’m Alive.’ Well, okay, it’s really not so tongue-in-cheek. I came up with the chorus and melody just walking around the house during lockdown. It just came out in that moment, just as it is on the record. I picked up a guitar and Facetimed J.D.,” Thornton recalls.
This album was really a cathartic release, Andrew says. “We were able to be in our favorite place in the world, which is the recording studio. So we made a joyful noise. Meanwhile there was a lot of pain and suffering and fighting all around us. I lost one of my best friends from childhood who took his own life on one of the days that we were recording. So there are those bits of sadness in these poppy and fun sounding songs.”