“Nerd Prom” is still a go this year, thanks in large part to Georgia’s very own cool kid, Chuck Leavell -- and his buddy, Billy Bob Thornton.
Macon resident Leavell -- the Mother Nature Network co-founder whose “other” jobs include tree farmer and oh yeah, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones -- said MNN’s annual rockin’ party the night before the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) Dinner will take place as planned next Friday in Washington D.C.
Oscar winner Thornton and his band The Boxmasters will headline the party’s unique musical lineup that also includes Leavell and bands made up of -- get out your autograph books, kids -- journalists.
It’s especially notable because so many other big names -- including President Donald Trump -- are bailing on this year’s version of the only-in-Washington-type weekend that’s been dubbed “Nerd Prom” because it features lots of poindexter types running around in tuxes.
All that bailing may be one reason the“White House Correspondents’ Jam III” is more needed than ever this year, Leavell suggested.
“In the heat of all the political storms that are going down and all the country’s been experiencing recently, journalists and politicians -- and for that matter, everyone -- needs a chance to take a deep breath and have some fun,” Leavell said about the invitation-only party being thrown at hip eatery the Hamilton by Atlanta-based MNN, the world’s most visited online network for envivronmental news and information.
“I think it’s a bit of a shame that President Trump is not going to go to the dinner,” he continued. “But that’s even more of a reason people need an opportunity to kick up their heels.”
Said Thornton by phone from a tour bus in Colorado: “When Chuck asked us (to play), we thought ‘What a strange and cool thing to do.”
Indeed, love it or loathe it as the most insanely overcovered and self-indulgent thing to come along since the Kardashians, the annual White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD) has become almost impossible to ignore. What started out as a small gathering of reporters in 1921 later turned into a “can you top this” competition among media organizations to attract the biggest celebrities to sit at their tables. That in turn spawned four days of parties and breathless cable news and morning TV show coverage.
It had become tradition for whomever occupied the Oval Office to show up and dish some (semi)good-natured barbs at the press. Not this year, though: President Trump, perhaps unable to stomach the idea of dining next Saturday night with the “fake media,” sent his regrets way back in February; likewise, many Hollywood celebs also decided to stay away (everyone must have to wash their hair). Followed by some of the most exclusive parties usually thrown by the likes of Vanity Fair, People/Time, Google, even (gasp!) Funny or Die being cancelled this year.
One result of all this, Leavell said, has been “even more interest” from people wanting to attend this year’s “Jam.” Which is saying a lot, considering that last year’s White House Correspondents Jam II -- for which Leavell put together an all-Georgia, all-star band featuring himself, R.E.M founding member Mike Mills, Widespread Panic founder/lead singer John “JB” Bell and Marshall Tucker Band drummer Paul Riddle -- turned into one of the toughest invites in town to snag.
After last year’s “Phil and the Busters” (that was the all-star band’s D.C.-themed name) tour-de-force, Leavell knew he had to come up with something equally splashy for this year.
Enter Billy Bob and The Boxmasters. Described by Leavell as “absolutely legitimate,” the veteran country rock/rockabilly band is currently in the midst of a 30-plus city nationwide tour. And, considering its lead singer/drummer has also won an Oscar (for writing “Sling Blade”); been married to (and divorced from) Angelina Jolie; and memorably portrayed both “Bad Santa” and the president of the United States (in “Love Actually”), we’re maybe talking more “tidal wavy” than splashy.
“It’s nice to have some star power,” Leavell chuckled about Arkansas native Thornton, whom he met some 20 years ago in Toronto. They quickly bonded over their shared Southern roots and mutual Macon connections such as legendary Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden.
Five years ago, when Thornton was in Georgia directing and starring in the movie “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” Leavell recalled, his buddy tapped him to put together a band for a scene. “And he put me in! He said, ‘You got one speaking line and you get to say it to Robert Duvall.’ So, that was cool.”
Almost as cool as playing his buddy’s party, Thornton suggested. If you’re having a hard time picturing Billy Bob as a wallflower, join the club. But when it comes to big glitzy to-do’s in Washington D.C, anyway, he makes it sound like he was always the last kid picked for kickball.
“I don’t think they invite me much to stuff like that,” Thornton, 61, insisted. “I’m not much in the Hollywood set. A lot of times I get overlooked.”
He may be one of the biggest stars in the room next Friday night, but Thornton hinted he’ll be doing his own share of gawking.
“Maybe we’re a celebrity draw for that party, but for us, we’re like geeked we get to see all these people we watch on the news,” said Thornton, who flips between news channels to catch all perspectives, but particularly admires CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, John King and Dana Bash. “It’s as big a deal for us as maybe it is for them.”