Joy to the World 

The world according to Hoyt Axton

The famed singer-songwriter offers his first full-length post pot-bust interview

Hoyt Axton, enthroned in an ornate, deep-lacquered and imposing wooden chair, carries the air of some backwoods monarch, a wizard waiting in the hills of the Bitterroot with a trove of knowledge for pilgrims wily enough to track him down.

That's fitting, because on a snow-edged November day the legendary country singer, rock songwriter, sometime movie star and all-purpose libertine holds court for a half-dozen journalists in his living room. The pretext for our trek to his country spread just outside the don't-blink Bitterroot Valley hamlet of Victor is Axton's contribution to a benefit CD packed with Montana blues and jazz types, raising cash for Missoula's new Boys and Girls Club.

Hoyt Axton, 60, wrote "Joy to the World," a hit for Three Dog Night. His mother Mae Axton co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" for Elvis Presley. Axton is pictured here with his wife Deborah.
Photo by Sumner McKane

The real draw is Axton himself, 60 years old, an emissary from musical days past. He moved to Western Montana eight years back and, since then, has piqued all kinds of prying wonderment. The recording artist with 24 albums to his credit, the songwriter behind "Joy to the World"-the unavoidable, anthemic version by Three Dog Night is practically the lodestone of classic rock-Axton has forged a name for himself in the Bitterroot by his absence as much as his presence.

Felled by a stroke some years ago, embarrassed by a well-publicized 1997 bust for marijuana and methamphetimine, besieged by the tax man, Axton's kept a sub-radar profile for the last year. While old-school country fans and graying ex-hippies remember Axton as a brilliant folk balladeer who won counterculture allegiance in the '60s, much of the rest of Western Montana wonders idly about the man.

Lured by a good cause, Axton agrees to allow Missoula scribblers and shooters to fling questions and blast flashbulbs his way. And then late last week, he sits down for an exclusive chat with the Independent, his first one-on-one interview for print since the dope entanglement his wife Deborah delicately calls "the trouble."

At the earlier, informal press conference in his living room, Axton gives no sign of bashfulness-in fact, he starts things off in fine style. "If that's Bill Clinton, tell him I don't know what the hell he should do now," he hollers when a phone rings in the background. "He's been callin' me for advice constantly," he mockingly confides to reporters.

If that's the kind of afternoon we're in for, I think this should be fun.

Whether some of the enduring questions his Montana neighbors harbor will be answered remains to be seen. Of course, many of the facts on Axton's vita are indeed growing a little old. Born in Oklahoma in 1938, Hoyt had a schoolteacher dad and a mom who co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel," the Elvis smash. He broke into music in San Francisco in the early '60s.

Beyond his own bulging catalogue and chart-ripping work for Three Dog Night, he's written for Steppenwolf, Ringo Starr and the Kingston Trio. Over the years, he developed a little acting sideline for himself, including roles in The Black Stallion and Disorganized Crime, the caper flick that brought him to Montana nearly a decade ago.

None of that lays the more pertinent curiosities to rest: Is he a drug-addled recluse, a well-traveled country Kaczynski holed up in a one-man stand against Ravalli County authorities and the IRS? A hero for the legalize-it crowd? Does the songwriter who, by his own admission, penned the Three Dog hit "Never Been to Spain" in 15 drunk party minutes still have that Midas touch? Hell, can he even sing anymore?

Axton answers that last question in a hurry, rolling out an acappella rendition of "Blue Prelude," the ancient lament he contributed to Flying Under the Radar, the Boys and Girls Club benefit. It's a song his dad used to sing, he says by way of preamble, when things between him and Hoyt's mother, Mae Boren Axton, weren't so good.

The song, rendered in Hoyt's time-hewn baritone without any instrumental dress-up, seems to rise through his lungs from the mists of American music. You can hear the hollow anguish and loss of a Great Depression night in the lyrics and ghost-ridden melody. When Axton sings the refrain- "I know I'm on the last go 'round"-it's hard not to feel something irreplaceable is going or gone.

Talking to Hoyt, though, it's apparent this cantankerous old timer has a lot of life left. In conversation Axton is hilarious, uproarious, humble, humane and unbowed by turns. Despite the pathos of "Blue Prelude" and some of the new songs this deft old craftsman's been writing, there's no hint of an impending end.

In fact, there's some suggestion that the creator of the immortal Jeremiah the Bull Frog looks forward to a new beginning. Axton's farewell to the press conference gaggle seems to indicate that he's got some Cain-raising left to do. "You take care of yourselves," he cautions. Then, a beat later, he laughs. "I don't know why the hell I am worried about you."

In the same room a few days later, Hoyt fields questions from his wheelchair, amidst a riot of dogs. "For nine damn dogs, they're pretty good," he insists, even as he tries to aid my efforts to fend off the apparent ringleader, a black-and-white lap-leaper named Mose, in honor of jazz keyboardist Mose Allison.

Once the dogs are safely in Deborah's care, the allusion to Mose prompts Axton to delve into his mental archive. "There was a club where Allison was gonna play," Axton begins, clearly relishing the tale. "And while they were setting up, his band, he just sat down at the piano and started playing one note. Just one note, over and over again. And he went on for two hours, just playing that one note.

"Finally someone says, 'Mose, what are you doing?' And he says, 'I'm playin' piano, man! People play 'round looking for the perfect note, and well, I just found it!'"

The story is a gem, suddenly and unexpectedly revealed, and it's typical. After four decades spent wearing himself out on the road and in the studio, Axton seems to have a bottomless keg of legend on tap. Hoary tales of oft-forgotten American music icons lie plentiful and ready in his repertoire. Some of them hit considerably closer to home than others.

"When 'Joy to the World' was played on the Grammies, it was the first non-nominated song ever played," Hoyt recounts. "And while Three Dog Night was sound checking, one of the suits from GM, the sponsor-some guy in a Brooks Brothers outfit with an alligator briefcase-came up to their manager and told 'em not to play the song.

"And they said, 'What, you don't like "Joy to the World?"' And the suit said, 'We don't give a damn about "Joy to the World." We don't like that line about gettin' rid of the cars and the bars and the wars. Cars are our business.' Well, they played it anyway, and it was at number one for weeks, and it was just certified at 2 million radio plays."

The gold record awarded "Joy to the World" hangs in a place of honor in Axton's living room-ironically enough, since the song even he seems to think is destined to be the backbone of his legacy nearly had a much more modest resting place.

"Three Dog Night, at the time, had five guys working eight hours a day screening music, because so much of it was coming in," Axton says. "And 'Joy to the World' got circular-filed when I first sent in a demo tape-the band never even heard it.

"But I had this old pool table John Cassavetes, the director, gave me. (There's a great story there, but you're too young for it.) So anyway, I was shooting pool with the guys from Three Dog Night, and I was playing the tape of me singing 'Joy to the World' for background music.

"And they asked me, have our guys heard this? And I said, well, I think so, I sent it in. And they said, can we use it? And I said, hell, you can put out a triple album of Hoyt Axton songs if you want.

"'Joy to the World' has saved my butt so many times," he concludes, eyes cast upward as if to heaven. "So many times."

If "Joy to the World" made a fitting capper to the '60s-the song broke big in 1971-the rarefied air of its success was far, far away from where Axton began the decade, as a scrambling songwriter fighting for attention in San Francisco's coffeehouse scene.

That decidedly bohemian destination seems unlikely enough, given Axton's archetypal heartland upbringing. He was a two-way gridiron star for Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, (the same alma mater, Axton notes, that would later produce Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd).

After that came the Navy and more than one tilt in the boxing ring. And still, the big Oklahoma boy, honorable mention All-Southern champion pugilist of his Navy task force, inaugurated the Flower Power decade strumming guitar and singing ballads in the hippiedom's mecca.

Just as he puts his abiding love of the ladies down to his "daddy's blood," Axton says his parents, as much as anyone or anything, instilled his will to make music.

"My dad sang for pleasure, and my mom wrote songs as a hobby, part time," he says. "Then, after 'Heartbreak Hotel,' full time. And after I saw the new roof on the house and the new car in the garage, I said, wait a minute-you can make a living writing songs? I never knew such a thing was possible."

Axton reminisces fondly about checking out jazzman Lon' Cat Jessie Fuller, who sometimes played a strange, hybrid bass contraption of his own design he called a "fotdalla." And he talks, not so fondly perhaps, of the $18-a-month flat he shared with a sax player and his first, rip-off-tainted success in the business.

"In 1962, I wrote a song for the Kingston Trio called 'Greenback Dollar' that was a number one hit for six weeks, something like that," he says. "I got a grand total of $800 in royalties. Capitol was crooked for a lot of years. But how in the world could I sue over a song where the main body of the lyrics was all about how 'I don't give a damn about a greenback dollar'?"

That may have been a little hypocritical, I suggest. "Oh, I've always been comfortable wearing the mantle of the hypocrite," Hoyt quickly assures me.

While purists on both sides might disagree, odds are that a certain bottom-line integrity, rather than hypocrisy, allowed Axton to make inroads with the '60s counterculture even as he laid down firm country foundations. Three Dog Night immortalized "Joy" and "Never Been to Spain", while metal forefathers Steppenwolf recorded "Snowblind Friend" and "The Pusher." The latter track showed up on the soundtrack for Easy Rider, the hippie motorcycle classic starring Peter Fonda, who has also found himself a home in Montana at this late date.

It's a little hard to reconcile the grandfatherly, wheelchair-bound sage Axton's become with the '60s scenester ball of fire one imagines he must have been. While he's a bit reticent on the topic of his wilder days, Axton's songs and stories hint at more than a passing acquaintance with the high life, once upon a time.

Guitarist Louie Bond has been helping Hoyt Axton write new songs. Axton and Bond performed a few songs for the press, including "Some Women."
Photo by Sumner McKane

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