“Jake Owen? Who is Jake Owen?” asks Chris Isaak, seated in a corner of Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, sipping a bottle of water underneath an ornate cathedral ceiling that’s painted like a clouded sky. It’s early afternoon, and he’s just handed his trusty sidekick — a fluffy white Maltese terrier named Rodney — over to his manager, and has a few hours to go before he’s due to arrive at the evening’s festivities: the ACM Honors, hosted by Owen.
“Is he a good country singer?” Isaak asks Rolling Stone Country. “He must be, because he’s hosting the show.” Later, the 59-year-old artist will change out of his dark slacks and polyester-looking Oxford into a dark suit to honor songwriting squad Felice and Boudleaux Bryant — a legendary team to some, a veritable “who?” to others. Isaak, of course, falls into the former category. He might not be able to identify contemporary country stars, but he can faithfully croon through a cover of “Bye Bye Love,” written by the duo and recorded by the Everly Brothers, with a timeless and moody reverence, as Rodney waits patiently in the wings.
“I couldn’t tell you who is in country music today,” he says, his famous crystal-blue eyes a little bloodshot from his recent travels — a tour and trips Down Under to serve as a judge for The X Factor’s Australian version, have left him a little ragged. His hair however, shaped into a mature pompadour, shows no sign of fatigue. “I guess it’s a good thing, though, because when I go to these awards things, people always have to tell me: ‘He’s somebody important.’ Well, I don’t know. What do I know? My kind of country stuff is Hank Williams and Ernest Tubbs and Hank Snow. Hardcore, old-fashioned.”
Isaak is hardcore and old-fashioned too, with a dose of quirky modernity. It’s what’s made songs like “Wicked Game” (and its smoldering, love-on-the-beach video) so iconic that it’s hard to see him and not expect him to be covered in grains of sand — or Helena Christensen, for that matter. His ties to country have always been strong, pulled even tighter on his forthcoming LP, First Comes the Night, his first collection of original material since the release of Mr. Lucky in 2009. Not only was it recorded in Nashville, but the project was produced by two of the town’s most revered song wizards from opposite sides of the spectrum: Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum) and Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell). He also connected with several local songwriters, including Natalie Hemby, who helped to craft “Please Don’t Call,” premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country.
“I didn’t know that Natalie Hemby is this big Nashville songwriter, but I can see why — because she is absolutely fantastic,” he says. “Writing with writers in Nashville ran the gamut. I sat with writers who just throw out any word that rhymes and I’d say, ‘I think I left something in my car’ and never come back. But then, you meet great writers like Natalie, and true collaboration just clicks. I write lyrics really fast and so does Natalie, but I won’t settle for something just because it rhymes, and she has that same dedication to getting every song and every word right.”
It’s satisfying to listen to “Please Don’t Call” and realize that Isaak’s point of view is still very well intact — it’s an ominous end-of-love song that recalls his best rockabilly, Roy Orbison-vibed work and carries just a touch of devilish twang.
“Country music has morphed into some kind of pop-rock with a country accent,” he says. “If the Everly Brothers came out now, they’d be too country for country, and they were rock & roll. Jerry Lee Lewis would be too country for country. Even Elvis [Presley] would have been too country for country.”
Isaak’s long held an affection for the glory days of Sun Records, where Presley and Lewis went to make some of their most famous albums — he even released an LP in 2011, Beyond the Sun, that served as a tribute to the studio’s legendary cuts. But he didn’t come to Nashville for First Comes the Night in order to infuse some country into his sound. His reasons were far more practical than that.
“I’ve been in Nashville a lot of times playing, and I like Nashville,” he says. “But I never thought about recording here because I thought it would be expensive. I don’t really care where I record. I’m not Mick Jagger. I don’t need to go to the Bahamas to record; I’m just a regular guy. But turns out, the prices were competitive here.”
He also settled on Music City after Stevie Nicks recommended Nashville, based on her own positive experience in town. After a quick call with Worley, and a crunch of the numbers, Isaak was sold, pairing up with songwriters like Hemby, Gordie Sampson and Michelle Branch.
“I talked to Paul, and after three minutes, I was like, ‘I’m ready to go.’ I just loved him,” says Isaak. “At the same time, I got to meet Dave Cobb. He reminds me of, and I say this in the most positive way, Sam Phillips. He believes in the music, and damn everything else. We didn’t spend as much time working with David, but the time we spent with him was really productive, and some of my favorite stuff I’ve ever done.”
It has been a remarkable 30 years since Isaak released his debut LP, Silvertone — and, as much he’s compared to the likes of Orbison and Presley, he’s much more focused on longevity than anything else. It’s a tactic that’s kept him away from the dangerous indulgences that have plagued some of his precursors. He doesn’t drink, do drugs or spend money on frivolous things like yachts or flashy cars.
“I really, really like making music, and so I try to hold myself together so I can sing and write,” he says. “And the drinks and partying seemed like the opposite of that. It always bothered me, those people who got very famous fast, but they usually don’t have a big body of work.”
“Country music has morphed into some kind of pop-rock with a country accent.”
Still, that doesn’t keep Isaak from letting his imagination run, like on First Comes the Night‘s “Down in Flames,” a Dick Dale meets “Jailhouse Rock” boogie that charts the burn out vs. fade away demises of legends like Hank Williams (“in his Cadillac”), James Dean (“bought it on the highway”) and Elvis (“Died…or did he?”). Isaak, however, would rather cleverly toy with fire than go down in a blaze of glory. He knows he’s made decisions some of his idols might have balked at — starring on The X Factor, in particular — but at least he’s still around to make records.
“I’m not Elvis or John Lennon,” he says. “I do a lot of things they wouldn’t do. It’s a different story, and I’m happy with that story. John Lennon got shot. Elvis died in a not real great situation. I wouldn’t trade positions. . . I have a great life. I can go surf. Now, when I eat out, I don’t even look at the price first. I look at what I want to eat first.”
Isaak talked to Rolling Stone back in 1991 about how he was so poor when he first started as a musician that he’d routinely have a can of sardines for dinner. He still eats them — except now, he’s more worried about his band not liking their odor than his finances. Isaak busted his sense of smell as an amateur boxer, so their marine-like scent doesn’t bother him.
“When we are on the road, I get a bunch,” he says. “But I can’t eat them with the guys on the bus. I love sardines. Me, and people in their eighties.” Hardcore, and old-fashioned.
First Comes the Night is out November 13th on Vanguard Records.