Hoyt Axton

WITH B. B. KING, Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Three Dog Night, the Crusaders and Lynn Anderson among the dozens of artists who have recorded his material, Axton’s contemporary songs have been successful with all kinds of audience, from blues to pop.

The son of respected country writer Mae Boren Axton (composer of Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’), he grew up in the Dust Bowl and his approach to songwriting – both traditional and radical – is close to that of Woody Guthrie. He was part of the folk scene of the late fifties, co-writing with Ken Ramsey the Kingston Trio hit ‘Greenback Dollar’, and next achieved success through the film Easy Rider (1969), whose soundtrack featured Steppenwolf’s version of his song ‘The Pusher’. This and the later composition ‘Snow Blind Friend’ fell foul of the radio censors, despite the fact they were exposing and not glorifying drug habits.

The celebratory and the whimsical sides of Axton’s talent provided his next pop hits through Three Dog Night’s ‘Joy to the World’ (a No. 1 hit on Dunhill in 1971) and ‘Never Been to Spain’ (1972). In 1975 Ringo Starr had a Top Ten record with Axton’s ‘No No Song’.

With the success of the new Nashville songwriters, he found it easier to return to his country background in the mid-seventies, recording for A&M, MCA and his own Jeremiah label. His best record of this period is the double-album Road Songs (A&M), which included many of his best-known compositions (on several of which he duetted with Linda Ronstadt) and featured guitarist James Burton. In 1979 he had Top Twenty country hits with ‘Della and the Dealer’ and ‘Rusty Old Halo’, but in the eighties he turned increasingly to films, appearing in The Black Stallion (1982) and Gremlins (1984), among others. In 1991 he released Spin of the Wheel on his own D.P.I. label. Axton’s last album was Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog, an album of children’s songs.

© Phil Hardy, Dave LaingThe Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music, 2001

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