Hoyt Axton: Always The Innovator, Never The Imitator

First published in Country Music People, June 1982 


In addition to regular record releases over the years, Hoyt Axton has further increased his British following with a couple of concert appearances during recent months. Now he's on tour and entertaining his audiences with a show that takes in good music mixed with good fun showmanship. Alan Cackett presents his impressions on this month's cover artist…

Hoyt Axton is a name that has been around for years. But really it is only during the past three years that he has meant anything in Britain. His success is due to the outrageous tale of Della And The Dealer, a minor hit in the spring of 1980. It brought him over for the ill-fated Portsmouth Festival, followed the next year by an appearance at the Wembley Festival, and now he is engaged on his latest British concert tour.

Whenever you talk about Hoyt, inevitably his mother, Mae Boren Axton, will come into the picture. She acts as his spokesperson, manager and publicist, and though Hoyt is a talented songwriter, natural entertainer and distinctive vocalist, there's little doubt that without his mother's guidance and persuasive attitude, his career would not have been as long-lasting as it has been.

In the early 1950s Mae Boren Axton, a schoolteacher, began to write songs for pleasure. The whole Axton family was musically inclined and it all stemmed from family get-togethers. Some of these songs were recorded by major country artists like Hank Snow and Faron Young, but it was Heartbreak Hotel, the first million-selling record by Elvis Presley, that really set the seal on Mae's talents as a writer. 

“Music was important to our family,” says Hoyt. “My dad used to sing all the time. We didn't have a radio—he hated radios—so when we'd travel around the country, he'd sing. I got to realise at a very early age that singing was kind of a labour of love. At least it was with him, and it has always been that way with me.”

Born in the backwoods of Comanche, Oklahoma, Hoyt spent his youthful days moving around the country, growing up in Florida, Texas, California and Michigan. While in high school he had his first introduction to the guitar, and with a working knowledge of six chords, plucked out such timely favourites as Your Cheatin' Heart and Goodnight Irene. Country music played an important role in the early life of Hoyt Axton.

“My mother was writing songs, and having quite a bit of success, too,” Hoyt recalled. “She was also working for a time at the Opry in Nashville and I got to meet many of the country stars. At the time I was heavily into country music, so when I made my first record, naturally it was country. We did it at the old Decca studios, and some good pickers were on the session, I remember Grady Martin was there, but I wasn't really ready for it, and the record just bombed.”

That first record was in fact produced by Doyle Wilburn in 1958 and released by the small Briar label. Shortly afterwards Hoyt joined the Navy and neither he nor Uncle Sam gained much from the exercise, as he says, rather ruefullyL “I got very little out of it, and they didn't get a helluva lot out of me, either. Let's just say it was a draw.” 

Once he got away from the clutches of the Navy, he moved out to the West Coast and lived a very full life. He hung around bars and women, picking with the likes of Sonny Terry, Josh White, Lonnie Johnson and Jim 'Roger' McGuinn, who was later to become a member of The Byrds.

For many years he was part and parcel of a Los Angeles scene that included many late nights drinking at a bar just outside the performance room at the Troubadour Cafe. He was beginning to get heavily into songwriting, mainly working within a blues and folk idiom. Success didn't come quickly or easily, but Hoyt was ready for that. 

“Starting out to make money is the worst thing you can do. Do what you have a flair for doing, what you enjoy doing. If you're good enough at it, the bread'll come later; if you're not, it doesn't matter 'cause you're having a good time.”

And he was having a good time, living life to the full as if there was no tomorrow. He signed with Vee Jay Records and recorded several albums, including a fine tribute to the legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith. He started his climb from obscurity by writing Greenback Dollar, a major success for the Kingston Trio in 1962.

Songwriting has always been Hoyt's forte. His writing instincts were family bred and he reckons he has started over 1,000 compositions. He's finished about 300 and in his estimation about two dozen have turned out just about right. His philosophy on songwriting is quite simple:
“I don't know of anything that I've ever experienced in my life, and I've done a lot of trips, but when you write a song, man, I've never experienced anything under any conditions that gives me the same feeling, the same communication as when I'm writing a song.”

Of those two dozen that Hoyt feels have turned out just about right, you'd have to include The Pusher, Snowblind Friend, Joy To The World and Never Been To Spain, hits for American groups Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night during the late 1960s. Then there are the songs he wrote for himself, like Less Than The Song, You Taught Me How To Cry (a duet with Tanya Tucker), Lion In The Winter (a duet with Linda Ronstadt), Darrell And Judy, Boney Fingers, Evangelina and of course, Della And The Dealer.

Where, I've often wondered, have the songs come from? “Some if it I make up, some of it I take from real life and change 'em around 'til it's a little easier to work with, live with. And some of 'em are reactions to life.”

Though his roots are country, it wasn't until the early 1970s that country music artists started to pick up on Hoyt's songs. One of the first was Anne Murray, who recorded Ease Your Pain, then Waylon cut Never Been To Spain and other artists like Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell, John Denver and Lynn Anderson recorded his songs.

“When I first started writing, I never really pushed them,” he explains. “If someone recorded one of my songs, especially during the sixties, it would be 'cause they'd heard the song in a club. It doesn't really work that way in Nashville. It's a city of music publishers, and I don't give any of my songs to publishers. I handle all of my own songs. I guess that maybe I've been a little lazy when it comes to the business side, but I'm just here to have a ball, not get all tied up in business hassles.” 

There's little doubt that mainstream country music has overlooked some classic songs that have flowed from the pen of Hoyt Axton. It's a sad reflection of the way that Nashville works that such a talented singer and songwriter has never really been accepted within country music. Though he has enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, there's little doubt that the quality of his recordings during the past eight or nine years deserved a better reception from the country music buying public.

“Maybe I was on the wrong label at the time,” he says. “When I was with A&M I was putting out some good country records, but they didn't know how to promote country. Things were much better when I joined MCA, but really it wasn't until we formed our own label that things really came together.”
Hoyt joined A&M Records in 1973 and released four superb albums, which sadly didn't receive the acclaim they deserved until he moved on to pastures new. It was with the move to MCA Records in 1977 that he first started to gain a country following, His first album for the label, SNOWBLIND FRIEND, was a great country record. The highlight was Poncho And Lefty, a song that has become something of a minor classic. The writer, Townes Van Zandt, took that staple of C&W music, the cowboy opus, and produced a sad story of the ageing of a once-famous outlaw.

“Now that is the kind of song I wish I'd written,” said Hoyt when we discussed why he'd recorded it. “It tells a story, a good one. It could so easily have been a true thing. It's one of those songs I just  love to do. I was in a club and I heard the writer, Townes Van Zandt is his name, doing the song, and it just knocked me sideways.”

Throughout his career, Hoyt has never really been tied down by musical straitjackets. He maintains that good music is really an amalgam of sounds, and cites both Bach and the Beatles as examples. 

“Bach wasn't really an innovator, you know. He was like at the tail end of centuries of musical expression and form changes. All he did was take them and distil them down to perfection. And the Beatles have kind of done that with the last hundred years of music, and that's influenced me a great deal. Dylan too, of course. I knew him slightly in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when everyone was hanging out there, listening to each other. But my favourite piece of music is Suite No.1 in G Major for Solo Cello by Bach—that's the only piece of classical music that blows my mind.”

It was, though, his commitment to the music he heard as a youngster, country music, that finally established Hoyt Axton as a singer and performer. Disillusioned by the attitude of the major labels, he formed his own record company in 1979. Jeremiah Records, named after the bullfrog mentioned in the song Joy To The World, gave Axton freedom to present his music his way. His ideas and talent were finally harnessed to their best advantage, and during the past three years he has released consistently good records, which brought him to the public's attention in Britain. 

“My success in Britain is, to be honest, totally unexpected,” he says. “I've always thought of my music as being totally American, and I have been knocked out by the way the people over here know my songs. The audiences have been really appreciative.”

“My whole thing is making music—I am a songwriter. It's what I do best and I know it, and recording my own songs is just part of the entire ball or wax. The songs are my dreams. The things that I would like to do with my life. The things I'd like to see, be a part of.”