His fledgling Jeremiah Records is named not for the prophet but for the bullfrog he wrote about in the 1971 hit Joy to the World. Yet Hoyt Axton, 41, has long been a voice crying in the showbiz wilderness. “The same dishonesty and greed you find in the oil companies exist in the music business,” fumes the iconoclastic country singer-songwriter. “A handshake in Nashville is a fairly standard way of doing business. But in Hollywood there are 50 handshakes and each one signifies something else.” Accordingly, he has fled the chicanery of the big city for a house in the Sierras, and now, four months after founding his own label, Hoyt has his reward. Jeremiah’s first LP, Axton’s A Rusty Old Halo, spawned a hit single, Delia and the Dealer. It’s been on the country charts 15 weeks.
Still, as a man who devoted his early years to “women, motorcycles and fast cars,” Hoyt has never claimed to be a saint. During his 20-year performing career, the occupational hazard of booze sometimes led the usually amiable 265-pound Axton to bust both gigs and heckling drunks. He also accrued 400 speeding tickets. The scrapes, though, never slowed his flow of hits like Greenback Dollar, Boney Fingers, When the Morning Comes, No No Song, Lion in the Winter and Flash of Fire, nor his shows with heavyweights like Ronee Blakley, Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt. His songs have sold some 25 million records for himself and groups as diverse as the Kingston Trio and Three Dog Night. “Hoyt has one of the most accurate performing voices I’ve ever witnessed,” says Nicolette, who toured with him for a year and a half. “He’s also the toughest person I’ve ever worked for. He lives his own way.”
Lately, though, that way has been spectacularly transformed. Hoyt has traded his fast-lane L.A. life for a three-story retreat cum recording studio on a California mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe. Backpacking has replaced tequila. “In the old days when I was getting high, I’d think I just did the greatest set ever, but I finally straightened myself out by taping one,” he says. “It wasn’t even good music, much less a good show.”
Twice divorced, Axton credits the change to Donna “Bambi” Roberts, who has shared his digs for three years. Now a keyboardist with his band (she has a degree in classical music from Allegheny College), Bambi says, “Hoyt is a confident, outgoing person, but I have an inner calmness that he is looking for within himself. He expects you to be totally responsible for your actions, but he is usually not that demanding of himself.” Though marriage is only occasionally discussed, the family has grown since Michael, Hoyt’s 15-year-old, moved in last December to work as a lighting designer for his father during school vacations. April, 13, also bunks there part-time, and Mark, 18, plans to work with Dad after studying studio engineering in L.A. (All three children are from Hoyt’s second marriage, to former model Kathryn Roberts.)
The kids will be the third Axton generation in music. Though Hoyt’s parents were both schoolteachers, Mom, Mae Boren Axton, co-wrote one hit for the ages, Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. Her other classic was Axton, born in Duncan, Okla. He attended many schools (his parents kept splitting and reconciling) before graduating from high school in Jacksonville. A songwriter since 15, he got his first real shot in 1962 when John Stewart of the Kingston Trio caught him at L.A.’s Troubadour and asked permission for the group to record Greenback Dollar. The royalties (split with co-writer Ken Ramsey) meant Hoyt finally could move out of his 1955 Plymouth into a house.
Still close to his family (“We all love each other, strange in this day and age”), Axton has made Jeremiah a thriving cottage industry. His lawyer brother, John, set up the new label in Nashville. His mother handles publicity from her Music City offices, and father John Thomas travels the Southwest with radio promotional material.
Axton tours some eight months a year—handling his own books while writing and acting on the side. He has roles in Francis Coppola’s unreleased Black Stallion and the upcoming Cloud Dancer with Keith Carradine, Jennifer O’Neill and Joseph Bottoms, and is in the pilot of ABC’s When the Whistle Blows, to air this fall.
Soon he’ll take his four-wheel-drive pickup to hated L.A. to star as Scrooge in a country-Western musical version of A Christmas Carol for NBC. “Acting is a piece of cake,” says Hoyt. “You just learn your lines and listen to the director.” Just so he doesn’t get into a creative rut, he’s also produced a volume of verses with his own illustrations and is writing a book of science-fiction stories which, he airily admits, “may not be finished for years.” It’s not just for the money. “Greed,” declares the star of Jeremiah Records, “is the root of all evil.”