First came the drum set at age 9, then a sweet gig performing for the local parent-teacher association. He opened for Hank Williams Jr. with a cover band, worked as a roadie for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, put out four solo albums and took a skyward trajectory on the Americana charts with a recent group album.
Oh, yeah, and he's an Oscar winner.
Many know Billy Bob Thornton as an actor and screen scribe, but the Arkansas-born star, who heads to the Ottobar on Wednesday with his band, the Boxmasters, has performance roots deeply entrenched in music. And he doesn't play favorites with his creative mediums.
"My passion for acting and music are exactly the same," said Thornton. "They're different but equally intense."
Thornton, whose uncle played guitar for a country band and whose mother is an avid music fan, drew the name of his first band, the McCoveys, on a bass drumhead with crayons while in elementary school, to emulate the Beatles. He cut his first record in 1974 with Hot Lanta and later opened for acts like Humble Pie and Ted Nugent as part of Tres Hombres, a ZZ Top cover band.
Throughout his life, Thornton has been influenced by an eclectic array of artists, including Johnny Cash, Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, Cream, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. That's evident in The Boxmasters, his band's self-titled debut album.
"We wear our influences on our sleeves," said guitarist Mike Butler. "The irreverence of the early hillbilly and country stuff and the punk attitude of bands like the Who make up the sound of the band."
The album has two discs, one with original tracks and the other with covers, including country versions of songs by the Beatles and the Who. The original songs, all written or co-written by Thornton, who sings and plays drums, combine comedy and upbeat music with dark lyrics. "The Poor House," the lead track, tells the story of a recovering alcoholic who decides to hit the slots in Reno, Nev., in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt at getting his family out of debt.
At Ottobar, after a cartoon plays on a stage set up to look like a 1960s TV show, the Boxmasters will perform tracks from both CDs. They'll be wearing '60s-style mod suits.
"We always loved the look of the Brit invasion. They just look so damn sharp," said guitarist/background vocalist J.D. Andrew. "It really adds to the whole show, when you have guys that are excited about how they're playing and how they look."
The on-stage unit also includes Brad Davis on guitar and mandolin, Mike "Bubba" Bruce on drums, Teddy Andreadis on bass and harmonica, and Marty Rifkin on pedal steel and bass.
After their first set, the Boxmasters plan to take a 15-to-20-minute break and return in rocker garb to play music from Thornton's solo albums. This performance also includes a liquid light show, reminiscent of the psychedelic shows at San Francisco's historic Fillmore Auditorium.
Thornton hopes audience members with little or no knowledge of the Boxmasters develop an appreciation for the band's musical stylings, as well as gain a perspective of him that's separate from his actor persona.
In the past, he says, he was sometimes grouped with the small-but-growing bunch of actors-turned-musicians, such as Keanu Reeves, vocalist/bassist for Dogstar; Jared Leto of 30 Second to Mars; and Terrence Howard, who performs at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Wednesday. But that's changing.
"No, I don't usually get lumped in," said Thornton. "At first I did, but not much anymore."
Through their music, the Boxmasters hope to bring some refreshment to jaded and commercialized audiences.
"These days, the music is homogenized; there's nothing identifiable about it." Butler said. "To us, it's important to make sure that our individualism comes through."
Doors open at 8 p.m. Wednesday, and the concert starts at 8:30 p.m. The Ottobar is at 2549 N. Howard St. $20. The band will also sign CDs 5:30 p.m.- 7 p.m. at Record & Tape Traders, 734 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.