Earl Scruggs News

Billy Bob Thornton talks about performing "Ring of Fire" for Earl Scruggs and Friends

By Rick Clark for The Oxford American
July/August 2001

I met Billy Bob Thornton last year at a Nashville party celebrating the completion of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? We had previously talked on the phone, but this was the first time we had talked in person. He told me he was getting together with some friends to record some songs at Ocean Way Recording, a studio in Nashville, and invited me over.

The next day, I walked into a crowded studio to find Billy Bob and Matt Damon playfully dogging each other's movie work. Suddenly, Billy Bob announced that he was going to play a track that he had just cut with Earl Scruggs that morning. I had no idea what to expect. It was "Ring of Fire," and what came out of the speakers was a version of that song unlike any I'd heard. Instead of a straight country reading of the Cash classic, this was hip-hop influenced, with Earl Scruggs playing a hypnotic banjo line throughout and with Billy Bob Thornton singing smoothly and with passion.

Throughout the night "Ring of Fire" must have played thirty times at death-defying volume while a studio full of people partied. No one ever got tired of it. Soon into the playbacks, I caught myself thinking that this idiosyncratic performance would be a perfect track for this year's Oxford American CD.

Oxford American: How did your appearance on Earl Scruggs's album Earl Scruggs and Friends come about?

Billy Bob: I was in Nashville working on my record. Earl and Louise [Scruggs, Earl's wife] came around to say hello, and I played them "I Still Miss Someone," a song I had originally cut for my record but that is not going to be on it now -- I'm going to put it on another one.

Anyway, Earl and Louise just flipped out over it. Then Randy [Scruggs, their son] called me and said, "My dad wants to know if you will be on his record." I said, "Well, yeah. Are you sur he wants me on it?" Randy said, "He loves you." He went ape over your voice, and he wants you to do a Johnny Cash song. He wants to know if you will do 'I Walk the Line' or "Ring of Fire.' " So I called Marty [Stuart] up and said, "Earl wants me to be on his record. What would you do -- 'Ring of Fire' or 'I Walk the Line'?" Marty said, " 'Ring of Fire'." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "I don't even think Cash can sing 'I Walk the Line' anymore." [Laughs] So we did it.

Oxford American: You finished it in less than a day, didn't you?

Billy Bob: I went in at nine o'clock in the morning and knocked it out in probably an hour.

Oxford American: Is there any acting involved in singing? Was there a persons that you needed to get into for your version of "Ring of Fire"?

Billy Bob: Well, let's see.....at nine o'clock in the morning that's just how I sound. [Laughs] But yeah, I look at every song like a short story. Definitely on my album, I do. Each song is a story, and if there is a character, then I'm in the character. Just as I do as an actor, I try to be myself within a person in a story: what would I do in that story....you know?

For the rest of the interview about Billy Bob's new album, check here.

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