Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hoyt Axton: Half Folkie, Half Hippie, Half Okie (Guest Article)

For the more than a decade that I’ve known Brian Dickson, his fandom of the multi-talented Hoyt Axton has been evident. If Hoyt had been younger, it’s possible he could have been called country punk, along with the likes of Rank & File, but he was more of the generation of Townes van Zandt and the hyper-realistic country that was both harsh and beautiful. This, in part, is why I asked Brian to write something about Hoyt, since little is known about him these days, and he deserves the credit he can get. Besides, feeding a musical obsession is something I will usually stand behind, especially if the subject is as worthwhile as Axton. – Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014

By Brian Dickson, 2014
Images from the Internet

I was pleasantly surprised when Robert dropped me a line and asked if I would like to write a piece on Hoyt Axton for this blog, but I had to ask him: “Are you sure Axton fits the bill for ‘Rock n’ Roll Attitude with Integrity’?” Robert's reply: “Hoyt was as punk as Johnny Cash or Townes Van Zandt, as far as I’m concerned.” Which I believe is true in several ways. Hoyt enjoyed a long, colorful career that included not only music composition and performance, but acting, record production and commercial voice-over work. But part of my fascination with the man, I think, is that his musical approach always eluded definition. He could never be bracketed into one genre or another.

Hoyt Wayne Axton. If you don’t know the name, chances are you’d recognize him from films and TV. “Bonanza.“ Smoky (1966). The Black Stallion (1979). “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Heart Like A Wheel (1983). Gremlins (1984) [He played the dad who gave his son the Gremlin – RBF]. We’re No Angels (1989). A slew of others. But if you can’t place the face, chances are you know the voice. Extoller of the Big Mac, Pizza Hut, and Busch beer. And of course, writer and singer of some truly great songs.

Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, in 1938, and raised in Comanche; the eldest son of John T. Axton and Mae Boren (Mae, later known as ”The Queen Mother of Nashville,“ co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis). He served a brief stint in the U.S. Navy after attending Oklahoma State University on a football scholarship. His career in music began in West Coast coffee houses and folk clubs in the early sixties.

I’ll admit I’m showing up at the party pretty late here. I was born in ’73; by that year Axton had recorded ten albums for six different labels. Nineteen sixty-nine saw the release of My Griffin Is Gone on Columbia Records, followed by two on Capitol Records in 1971 (Joy to the World, and the lesser known Country Anthem). In ’73 came Less Than the Song on A&M, the first of four albums on that label, which is widely recognized as Hoyt’s creative peak: Song in ’73, Life Machine (1974), Southbound (1975) and Fearless (1976).

But being an ‘80’s kid, I became aware of Hoyt not through his music, but by seeing him in movies - Gremlins, primarily - and on television, namely, “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” In tenth grade it became a daily routine after walking home from school to catch a re-run of “WKRP” at 4. I fondly recall that classic first-season episode entitled, “I Do, I Do…For Now.” Hoyt, playing the imposing “T.J. Watson from Rockthrow, West Virginia,” arrives at the station to reclaim his childhood sweetheart, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), who hastily pretends to be married to Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman). Hoyt sings “Jealous Man” to a captive and terrified Fever in the station lobby (“You got the knife, I got the gun / c’mon boy, we’re gonna have a little fun…”). He proceeds to tell a story about his dear ol’ pappy. And how the woman his pappy loved – his mama – was already married to another man by the name of Jenkins. But Jenkins didn’t wanna give his mama up. So his pappy - bein’ the man he was - went down to see Jenkins…and called him out. “Called him out?” Fever replies nervously. That’s right, T.J. says – called…him…out. Fever (hope diminishing): “To talk.” Hoyt: Uh-huh. Then he shot him.” This is one of my favorite scenes in all of TV history.

It wasn’t until a road trip in the first car I ever owned – an ‘85 Plymouth Turismo, paid $650 cash – that I found Hoyt on a purely musical level. This was a solo run from Ottawa to my home province of New Brunswick, Canada, in 1999. I had been browsing CDs in a music store a couple of days prior, and stumbled across the two-disc A&M Years package, which contains Axton’s four albums released on A&M Records from 1973-76. I remember thinking, “Well, looky here. Hoyt Axton.” On that trip I cranked up songs on that old Duster’s player like “Peacemaker,” “Life Machine,” “Idol of the Band,” “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” and “No No Song.” I discovered Hoyt’s music with road tunes from Southbound and Fearless on the highway outside of Montreal that morning, which made me realize what an underrated figure the man was and is, to this day.

Hoyt is generally considered a country artist, particularly from his musical bend in the mid-to-late ‘70s and on. But let’s go back to the beginning: 1963. Consider his first folk recordings on Horizon Records: Greenback Dollar, Thunder’n Lightnin,’ Saturday’s Child. Bob Dylan broke down the door, and Axton moseyed through – not with the same lyrical prowess as Dylan, but with attitude, groove, and a voice like no other.

The following year saw Hoyt “explode”! Released by Vee-Jay in ’64, Hoyt Axton Explodes! is a mid-‘60s curio that might be loosely described as “garage folk-rock.” If Axton has a blues record, it would be Sings Bessie Smith (1965). My Griffin Is Gone (1969) is a lesser inclusion among the pantheon of classic albums of the period, but an atmospheric gem of that era, nonetheless. And Joy to the World is a rock album. A rock album with folky ballads making up half of each side, though. Folk n’ roll? Listen to the title track and “Never Been to Spain” (big hits for Three Dog Night). Regard others like “The Pusher” (big hit for Steppenwolf), “California Women,” or that classic party song, “Lightning Bar Blues.” Also a tune called “Captain America” from 1973. These are rock songs. His aforementioned albums on A&M from 1973-76 started with a somewhat experimental, progressive folk/blues oddity (Less Than the Song), but which somehow…wasn’t. The albums Life Machine, Southbound and Fearless were “country-rock,” but…weren’t. Hoyt’s other albums for MCA and the ones on his own Jeremiah label appeared to be country, but also quietly defied categorization. For the most part, his music encompassed folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country simultaneously. Michael Curtis, co-writer of the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit “Southern Cross,” said of Axton: “Hoyt had his own way of writing. He didn't exactly break the rules of songwriting, but he would often ignore them. He taught me a lot.” [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt: I'm one of those fringe dudes -- Half folkie, half hippie, half Okie. My input has been very eclectic. I was always surrounded by all kinds of music as my family moved around the country: jazz, classical, gospel, whatever. The influences enter from a lot of directions. [Quote from HERE]

Hoyt died of heart failure in Victor, Montana, in October of 1999, at the age of 61. I never had the opportunity to meet him, or see him in concert. But from what I’ve read in recent years (and learned from members of my Facebook tribute group Fans of Hoyt [HERE] who actually knew him or met him), he was a genuinely nice fella. In a People magazine article published shortly after his death, his third wife, Donna Axton, said, “He used to throw twenty-dollar bills out the car window and say, 'That will make someone happy.’” Look at almost anything autographed by him and he will have written, “Joy to you, Hoyt.” “Joy” was his watchword.

I realize my observations here may be a bit biased because I am such a devotee. After unearthing The A&M Years on that trip down home in ‘99, I have since sought out every Axton album, and I am continually trying to catch his movie and television appearances; my research is ongoing. Hoyt’s daughter, April, is a member of Fans of Hoyt, and last year thanked me and the members of the group on his birthday for “keeping his spirit soaring” (it’s a pleasure, April!). But c’mon – have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Axton’s music (if they’ve heard anything beyond “Boney Fingers” or “Della and the Dealer,” that is), or the likable characters he’s played in movies and on TV? As with Cash or TVZ, the old cliché applies: A man for all seasons. But what I also dig about him is this: Hoyt did his own thing. You could never button-hole the guy.


  1. great article. I found his vee jay singles and promptly shared them (on cassette) with my like-minded garage fans. I've got his autograph somewhere from when I saw him at a festival, mid-80's.

    Remember seeing him on Austin City Limits in the 70's. After playing a tune he said, "That made my nipples hard." Offended my mom, but endeared me to him!

  2. I had the good fortune to meet him in his dressing room after a Ledbetter's concert in 1962. Gave me and my friend a guitar lesson on his Martin D28. He was a down to earth genuine man and very nice guy as well as talented as hell. RIP Hoyt!

  3. Great job Brian, I really enjoyed reading about your discovery and admiration for this true artist, very interesting!