Hoyt Axton: The Axton Style - Unique!

First published in Country Music People, August 1980

Try to classify HOYT AXTON, the man recently in the British charts with Della And The Dealer. Impossible—his skills stretch a vast spectrum that takes in singing, songwriting and acting. This month he’s at Portsmouth and ALAN CACKETT heralds his arrival. 

To most die-hard country music lovers, a singer and performer like Hoyt Axton could never be seriously considered as a country music artist. Perhaps he is not? Certainly in the accepted terms of Nashville he doesn't fit into the mould that has transformed simple, backwoods musicians into rich and successful country music superstars.

His credentials, though, are very much the same as those of the big Nashville stars. Born in Comanche, Oklahoma, in 1932, he was nurtured on the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. His parents were schoolteachers. His mother, Mae Boren Axton, wrote songs for pleasure. These were recorded by top country stars, including Hank Snow (What Do I Know Today), Faron Young (I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die) and Elvis Presley’s first million-seller (Heartbreak Hotel). 

This led to a close association with country music stars. Mrs. Axton began working as a public relations consultant for artists like Jim Reeves and Hank Snow. Naturally, Hoyt became friendly with the country music stars and when he began singing and writing during the mid-1950s, doors opened very easily for him. 

His first record was on the Briar Label. Produced by Doyle Wilburn, it was recorded in Nashville at the old Decca Studios, which are now used by Columbia. One side was his own composition, a country tune called Georgia Hoss Soldier, and featured Jimmy Riddle on harmonica and Grady Martin on guitar. It was a failure, the recording only materialised as a favour for Mrs. Axton. 

Following this failure, Hoyt moved away from the South, intent on making it on his own. In 1958 he began singing folk songs in the San Francisco Bay area, and by the early 1960s he had become a folk figure of some renown. His recordings for VeeJay label were not very special, but did include some outstanding songs, including Greenback Dollar, which provided The Kingston Trio with a hit in 1963. 

Throughout the 1960s, though, Hoyt never really settled down to music. To him it was just an enjoyable pastime. He gained a reputation as a brawler and hard-living young man. A big, well-built man, he could handle himself in a tight situation. He drove fast, drank wine, broke guitars and wrote songs and generally took life as it came to him. 

Eventually he did settle down, got married, and found by the late 1960s that he was running short of money. Luckily some of the songs he had written during his more wild and carefree days began to be picked up by major pop acts. In 1964, John Kay, later the lead singer in the group Steppenwolf, heard Hoyt sing The Pusher at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. 

A song protesting against the use of drugs and written from personal experience, Kay lived with the song for several years then persuaded Steppenwolf to record it in 1967. Released as a single, it sold over one million copies and was also included in the film Easy Rider.

This success led to Hoyt Axton emerging from his semi-retirement into a new musical world. Gone were the days of hootenanny and the simple folk ways. It was now hard rock, and Hoyt succeeded in coming up with suitable songs. Three Dog Night, another top American rock band, recorded Joy To The World which became their biggest hit, followed by Never Been To Spain, made famous in country music by Waylon Jennings.

After ten years on the road as a performer and having cut six albums for VeeJay, you’d be right in assuming that by 1969 Hoyt Axton should have got his music together. But his one and only album for Columbia, MY GRIFFIN IS GONE, proved otherwise. It was a patchy album, ranging from the praise of the country life and Colorado in On The Natural to Beelzebub’s Laughter, a strong and compelling song concerning the horrors of war. The production was just not consistent with Axton’s vocals or the songs.

Luckily, Hoyt Axton is one of those personalities who emerge finally into the light surrounded by an appreciation that reaches almost cult figure proportions. The beginning of his emergence as a major recording artist can be traced back to the two albums he recorded for Capitol in the early 1970s.

They included a batch of songs that have been well covered in recent years. Like the aforementioned Never Been To Spain, Ease Your Pain, a beautiful, tender love song recorded by both Glen Campbell and Anne Murray, and Snowblind Friend, another anti-drug song recorded by Steppenwolf.
It was Axton’s move to A & M Records in 1973 plus his awareness that long as he was satisfied with the music he produced little else mattered. He no longer worried whether he was famous, he was even happy to allow other stars like Linda Ronstadt, John Hartford, James Burton, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Ario Guthrie to steal the limelight on his albums.

It was this kind of unselfishness that pushed him into the American country charts in 1974 with When The Morning Comes, a lovely duet with Linda Ronstadt and featuring tasteful steel guitar from Ralph Mooney. Another of Hoyt’s duets with Miss Ronstadt, Lion In The Winter, recorded in the spring of 1975, also made the country charts. This received lots of radio plays in Britain, boosting the sound of country music to British listeners. 

He recorded four albums for A & M, and then three years ago came the superb compilation album ROAD SONGS. Highlights from those four albums, which have delighted me over the years include Blind Fiddler, a sensitive duet between Axton’s bluesy vocal and John Hartford’'s fiddle. Nashville, a catchy song that is autobiographical and includes the talents of Hartford, Doug Dillard and James Burton. And then there is The Devil, a simple, gospel-styled song with a strong chorus that demands you listen. 

Unfortunately, Hoyt Axton appears to be one those great artists, always a little ahead of the trend, whose records have been almost completely disregarded. His songs possess a certain commercial edge, some of them are funny, others painful, but they all move you, whether it be to joy or sadness.

In 1977 he moved to MCA Records and continued to serve up his special brand of good-time music. He made the country charts with You’re The Hangnail In My Life, a catchy, up-tempo number that just made you feel great. His first album for MCA, SNOWBLIND FRIEND, featured a great mixture of self-penned songs and those selected from the repertoire of other writers. A fine duet with Tanya Tucker on You Taught Me How To Cry, which should have made the country charts but didn’t, a superb reading of Townes Van Zandts’s Poncho And Lefty (recorded before Emmylou’s), plus his own Never Been To Spain.

A second album for MCA, FREE SAILIN’, was even better, but it also failed to give him that all-important single smash. It again featured his distinctively gruff vocals and a mix of rockers and easy-going ballads with a strong country flavour added for good measure. He demonstrated his great, natural love for country music by including a traditional-sounding version of Carson Robison’s I Left My Gal In The Mountains.

His own story-telling talent is put to good use in the tale of Darrell And Judy, and again his sense of humour shines through on songs like Jive Man and Them Downers. Lack of success on record left him with a dilemma. He was as busy as ever—touring, appearing on American TV chat shoes, acting in TV series like McCloud and The Bionic Woman, and working on various projects for UNICEF and Anti-nuclear Initiative.

He has spent many years working on behalf of children. Many of his songs like Joy To The World, Pet Parade and Boney Fingers were written with children in mind. He has even written a children’s musical fantasy called The Happy Song, which he hopes will one day be made into an animated film.
It is as a singer and songwriter that Hoyt really sees himself. He considers himself a ‘West Coast underground folk singer and a mini-star.’ Disillusioned by the way he was being handled by the major record companies, he decided to form his own his own label, Jeremiah Records.

That was last year, and he has already placed four songs on the country charts—Della And The Dealer, A Rusty Old Halo, Wild Bull Rider and Evangelina. 

They were all included on the album A RUSTY OLD HALO. The title tune is a long-forgotten country song from the mid-1950s. The rest of the tunes are all self-written, with Della And The Dealer gaining him a well-deserved chart hit in this country recently. Axton obviously has extremely broad appeal. His songs have depth and meaning to appeal to the youngster. And they have enough melody and substance to move adults. You cannot help but smile whilst listening to the tale of Viva Pancho Villa, or Axton’s love skirmishes with a girl he calls a Torpedo.

Axton builds everything totally around his own capabilities, which are sky-scraping in and around him. Call it good-time music, middle-of-the-road sing-along, contemporary country, or what you will, the essence of what he is doing is fun music. Axton has been a permanent victim of circumstance, never quite managing to stamp an identifying tag on his work, but the fact remains that he is so damn good!

At last, though, things are changing. It is Axton who is the star of this latest album. He still has a legion of superpickers and singers helping him out, but each song has a distinctive ‘Axton sound.’ Perhaps at long last he realises that he could be a major superstar in his own right, without having to rely on the support of others to make it. His appearance at the Portsmouth Festival this month should be one of highlights—he is a man who lives life to the full. He is full of infectious fun that he readily communicates to an audience. And now he has the songs and the music to back-up his larger-than-life personality.