Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton has one request: Listen to his Lost Highway debut, "Private Radio," with open ears and an open mind. "I'm not saying you have to like [the record]," he says. "I

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton has one request: Listen to his Lost Highway debut, "Private Radio," with open ears and an open mind.

"I'm not saying you have to like [the record]," he says. "I'm saying don't be shut off to it because I'm an actor. I was a musician first."

The Sept. 25 release is, in many ways, a return to Thornton's first love. The 46-year-old Arkansas native began playing in bands when he was 9; music was how he eked out a living until he moved to California in 1981. So he is understandably defensive when he hears people talk about how he's just another actor dabbling in music.

Few actors -- much less musicians -- putting out their major-label debut have ringing endorsements from such luminaries as Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, Robbie Robertson, and Earl Scruggs included as blurbs in their liner notes.

But that's largely where participation from his famous friends ends. "Look what I could have done. I could have called up Bruce Springsteen and said, 'Hey, Bruce, I'm doing a record. You need to help me out,'" he says. "I could have done 12 songs with me doing a duet with a different musician on each, but what I did was I went into my basement, and I wrote songs I mean from my heart and soul."

Thornton did enlist the help of one well-known friend: Marty Stuart, whom Thornton met while filming "Primary Colors," served as producer/co-writer on most of the tracks. Other writers on the project include Yoakam, Holly Lamar, Mark Collie, and Randy Scruggs.

Stuart and Thornton recorded much of the album in Thornton's home studio in Beverly Hills, Calif. With many of the songs captured on their first take, Stuart and Thornton spin a web of Southern gothic tales: dark and haunting, with a silver lining often far in the distance, if there is one at all.

On the spoken-word tracks, Thornton's voice ranges from menacing on "Dark and Mad" to low-down and flirty on "Forever" and hypnotic on the stream-of-consciousness, ad-libbed, nine-minute "Beauty at the Back Door."

His singing voice is Dylanesque on the midtempo love letter "Angelina," redolent of Johnny Cash on the twangy "That Mountain," weather-beaten on the ringing "Walk of Shame," and dark and smoky on the ballad "Your Blue Shadow."

Thornton says the diversity on the album is one of its strong suits; in each song he's playing a different character, with different colors needed to shade each performance.

"In a sense, it's harder [to get in character for a song than a movie] because you have to stay on pitch," he says. "I can lose myself in a character in a movie and totally disappear, forget who I am. But with a song, you're still kind of aware of yourself a little bit."

Despite the somber tone of many of the songs, Thornton looks at the project as a way to reach people who have experienced troubled times as he has and help them through: "I think my calling, my job in life -- as an artist or a creator -- is to open people up. If you have some sort of talent and don't use it for people's good, you're taking up space. That's why I don't have a lot of songs on here about 'Baby, baby, I'll meet you at the malt shop.' I don't have much room for that sh*t, you know."

The first single, "Angelina," is a straightforward account of how he met his wife, fellow actress Angelina Jolie, and of their life together.

For a couple whose every move is tabloid fodder, Thornton says, the song is a way to tell their side of the story: "Isn't it better that I put it out there the way I want it to be seen? It's a 'f**k you' song in a lot of ways. It's 'Who are you people to tell us [about our romance]?' I think it's OK for me to be able to say, 'Just so you know, this is who I'm in love with. This is my life, and you can kiss my ass.' "

Lost Highway signed Thornton on the strength of a disc of '60s cover songs the actor played for label chairman Luke Lewis. "I spent half a day in his trailer on the set of "The Man Who Wasn't There," and he was all made up," Lewis recalls. "He'd just been in an accident in the scene he was shooting, and he had blood all over his face. It was very bizarre. I went away thinking he needed to do some original stuff."

After hearing some of the spoken-word material later, "I said, 'Cool, let's make a deal,'" Lewis says. Although he admits he was a little surprised when he heard the final project. "Billy wanted to sing more than I realized," the label chief says. "I got it once I heard it."

Thornton starts a tour Sept. 24 in London (the album comes out in Europe a week before its U.S. release). He is tentatively scheduled to start a 12-date U.S. tour, Oct. 9 in New York. Among the other cities Thornton is slated to play are Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, and Little Rock, Ark.

"I'm scared s**tless," admits Thornton, who will be playing 1,000- to 2,000-seat venues rather than bars. "I didn't want to play beer joints where people are yelling and hollering while I'm doing a song about suicide."

Before he goes on tour, Thornton will shoot five videos for the album, including clips for "Angelina" and "That Mountain." He insists the videos will look more like mini-movies than standard MTV fare. "For 'That Mountain,' it's basically one shot with a couple of cutaways, because I hate the way videos are cut," he says. "It makes me sick. It's ruined movies and music, too, to a certain degree."

The video for "Angelina" will be 8mm footage shot by Thornton and Jolie around their house. Lewis says the clips may eventually be packaged and sold at retail.

Thornton will be promoting the album on various TV shows, when he touts his forthcoming movies. "He's got five films coming out over the next six months," Lewis says. "It's a matter of making sure people understand that he has an album out as well."

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