Chris Isaak Chases the Sun Records Legacy

Singer Salutes Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and More

Chris Isaak ’s Beyond the Sun shows the deep influence songs cut at the legendary Memphis recording studio had on contemporary country music and the singer-songwriter himself. The new DVD offers Isaak’s sharp takes on indelible classics (Johnny Cash ’s “Ring of Fire”) and his own best (“Wicked Game”).

“I wanted to show that this was the music that started at Sun and also where it went,” he tells CMT Edge. “I like the DVD title because in my head it sounds a little like a 1950s sci-fi movie title.”

CMT Edge: Why is it important to pay tribute to Sun Studios?

Isaak: I wouldn’t have a band or be a singer if it wasn’t for [Sun producer] Sam Phillips and Sun Records. I always loved music, and I grew up listening to country, old country like Floyd Tillman , Mac Wiseman , Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers . To me, the new country was Buck Owens and Webb Pierce !

I loved that kind of music so much, but when I heard my first cuts of Elvis that were recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, everything changed. It was like it put it all together. I could find a way to be part of the music. I was singing at home and playing guitar but never where anybody might see me.

How did you become part of the music?

I was in Japan boxing as a light heavyweight, feeling really homesick, and I found an album of Elvis on Sun. I had heard a single of his on Sun Records. I found that at a secondhand store a few years before, but I didn’t realize he made a whole bunch of recordings there, and when I took that record back to my little one room in Kyoto, it was like the sky opened up and said, “This is what you want to do.”

I had a flattop haircut that was mandatory for the boxing team, but I immediately started growing my hair and greasing it and playing my guitar night and day. I didn’t know it, but that record changed everything. Funny, I still have that old album.

How did those albums influence you as a songwriter early on?

I think I always wanted simple records with the voice on top. Even when everybody was going crazy with drum machines and overdubs, I was a big fan of “less is more.” And I do love a slap-back echo. I bought a little echo box early on. I remember I threw hay for about a week to get the money, and I treated that machine like it was made out of gold.

Do you draw most from Elvis or another Sun artist?

I was a huge Elvis fan, maybe because I heard more of his music early on, but it’s just all so good — Elvis, Roy Orbison , Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis , Carl Perkins . I couldn’t pick one over the other. I just listened to them over and over. I think I’m so lucky that in my life I got a chance to meet and work with most of my musical heroes. I was friends with Roy Orbison, and he was just the kindest, nicest man you ever met and never had an attitude.

I remember working with Johnny Cash. I brought an old photo of him when he was skinny and greasy and working at Sun Records. He looked at the picture a long, long time, and I was starting to think I had upset him, and then he just said, “Damn, I was a good looking man.” He was. I have two pictures hanging in my house — my mom and that signed photo of Johnny Cash.

Describe the importance of Sun Studio to modern country music.

I don’t think you could have country music without that Sun sound. It was a blend of blues and country, white and black, and it really was so far ahead of its time. I think a lot of music still has to catch up. And those Sun artists did very well in the country field — Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty , Jerry Lee Lewis. I think Jerry Lee could sing anything and I would listen. He is the most amazing singer, stylist and soloist I’ve ever heard. My dream would be to just stick a microphone on his piano that went on every time he played because the man can do no wrong in my book.

How did you approach putting your own stamp on “Ring of Fire”?

I tried to keep it in the style of those Sun Recordings, but I didn’t try to sound like Johnny Cash. Nobody ever will. And I liked that my piano man Scotty Plunkett put a great B-3 [Hammond organ] sound on the record that wasn’t on the original. Mostly, I didn’t worry too much. I just had fun singing it.

Did you find it inspiring or intimidating to cover such a well-known song?

If I thought about it too much, I’m sure I would find it intimidating, but I just had so much fun singing and playing on these songs. These are the songs I’ve been playing all my life just for fun, and that’s what I did in the studio. I think this was the most fun I ever had making a record. The band and I walked into Sun Studio really well rehearsed. We practiced in my garage like crazy, and I told them, “We already did our homework. Now forget everything and play it like you feel it and have fun.”

What are your plans for 2013?

I have been on tour all over the world this year, and I’m hoping to go back and see my mom for a while. I have plans to redo her bathroom and fix it up. Tile, lights, new shower, the works! And after that, I’ve got a bunch of new songs I want to record. Ain’t life grand?