Not many know the name Hoyt Axton, but everybody knows the songs that he wrote. Amongst his hits were Three Dog Nights “Never Been to Spain” and “Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog).”
Axton was born in southwest Oklahoma in Duncan and grew up in a little town, Comanche. Songwriting ran in his family. His mother, Mae Axton, co-wrote Elvis’ first hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” Throughout his childhood he was encouraged to learn music through his parents. His mother started him in piano lessons, while his dad helped him develop his baritone vocal technic. Axton became popular in the folk music scene when he left the Navy. He had also previously attended Oklahoma State University and played football (Go pokes!).
In 1973 Axton released Less Than The Song on A&M records. He did not sing any of his popular songs on this release, but he took a much different approach to the modern musical stylings. The album contains barely any drums and each song is mellow. This was a different venture when compared to other recordings in the early 70’s. It wasn’t nearly country, rock, or folk.
The album opens with “Sweet Misery.” I was hooked by the initial guitar picking. The song speaks of how misery often loves company, yet he turns it around with a simple, primary twist. In the second verse he offers the listener a puppy. He explains how the puppy will treat you and goes on to say that the listener seems happy. A great ode to enjoy the simple things in life and not join those in misery.
The next song on the album is the title track “Less Than the Song.” This composition expresses humility and the helping of others singing “Take my hand if I stumble and fall. It’s the strength that you’re share when your growin’.” He goes on to state that he wouldn’t rest until “your dreams are real sweet mama.” This is the essence of the song, he finds himself to be less then the woman he is with. Both points are excellent.
He finishes off this side with “Peacemaker.” This is a song speaking of draft dodging, which was a hot topic during this time (Vietnam War). Axton uses his higher register in this song as he crones “He was almost to sweet Canada’s border when he ran into a man who was high on gunpowder and a federal order.” The draft dodger is killed in the song, yet it talks how a war bond paid for his birth and how his father was fighting over seas to help pay for his illnesses. He suggested that this seemed to be a country of restraint rather then freedom. Axton concludes that the dodger died for his country and was not mistaken. I may not fully agree with the context of the song, but this is a true gem.
On Side B, track 2, Axton goes into “Oklahoma Song,” my personal favorite off the whole album. He expresses small town Oklahoma by explaining music being played on the front porch. This song projects Axton pride in his home state saying, “Red River water runnin’ deep in my blood” and how he was happy for his childhood. He also used the vocal style of growling and played the piano on this track. He speaks how he eventually does leave Oklahoma, but it seems he has fond memories. This song would bring a smile to any Okie’s face.
After Axton explains a “Mexico City Hangover” with a drunk rooster, he goes into “Hungry Man.” This is a song of irony and hope. He expresses how people are mean and how often Christians can be two faced. He counters this action with the simple bridge, “Jesus is a friend when you’re hungry….hm, hm, he’s going to be a friend to you.” Axton concludes by saying that we need the Lord to come back down and that we will all gather at the “Beautiful River of Life.” Sounds a bit like a line out of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” “I believe in kingdom come, when all colors bleed into one,” I hope they mean a river or this would make no sense.
Axton concludes the album with “Blue Prelude.” This song was written in 1944 and he performs it acapella, sheer dark vocal velvet. His baritone vocals fit this blues song like a glove.
Axton left this world in 1999 after suffering a heart attack. One of his most famous lyrics was, “Well I’ve never been to Heaven, but I’ve been to Oklahoma.” In his eyes, he had lived Heaven on earth and he is now living the real deal. Thank goodness he had never been to Spain and that many of us Okies are living in some beautiful red dirt.
Praying for a better tomorrow in the land of the Great Plains,
The King singing Axton’s “Never Been to Spain.”