Chris Isaak Appreciates His Country

Singer-Songwriter Learned From Examples Set by the Masters

Country Music Hall of Fame member Ernest Tubb never knew it, but he gave a young Chris Isaak a firsthand lesson in how to treat fans when he and his Texas Troubadours band performed in San Francisco late in his career.

"Not only was he a great performer, but he came out afterwards and had a little place where he'd sell records," Isaak recalls. "But you didn't have to buy a record. You could stand in line and shake his hand. And I remember I stood in line and said, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Tubb. I don't have much money today. I just want to shake your hand and say I'm a big fan of yours.' He shook my hand and said, 'Well, thank you very much for coming, son.' I still remember it, and I thought I wanted to do the same thing if I ever got the chance."

Isaak phoned from Boston, where he was promoting The Best of Chris Isaak, a compilation just released on CD and DVD.

Picking up on Tubb's example, Isaak and his band, Silvertone, routinely spend time after their concerts meeting fans and signing autographs.

"I enjoy what I do, and I'm somebody who likes talking to people," Isaak says of the ritual. "I understand that people have different personalities. I don't think it's a bad thing if some people [artists] don't do it. It doesn't mean that they're mean spirited. Some people just don't like hanging. I like hanging out with people."

Aside from the relationship country legends have with their fans, Isaak has a special appreciation for their overall professionalism.

"All the people I liked early on probably were the ones where I watched their behavior," he says. "I was probably more influenced by country than what you'd call rock 'n' roll, by today's standards. If you think of going through rehab and showing up late as being a rock 'n' roll kind of modern thing, I always liked the performers who came out in full Nudie suits. Out of respect for the audience, they'd dress up, and they'd show up on time. Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow and those kind of people had that kind of attitude or work ethic."

While Ernest Tubb hosted his own syndicated TV show in the '60s, The Chris Isaak Show combined music and comedy as a sitcom that began a four-year run on Showtime in 2001. While the cable series raised Isaak's visibility, he says, "The biggest thing was that more people recognized everybody in the band, and that was fun. Up till that point, most people just recognized me. And that's great, but I've had the same band for, you know, 20 years, so it was fun to see people coming up to my drummer and saying, 'Hey, Kenney, I like the show.'"

Several country artists, including Blake Shelton and Pam Tillis, made guest appearances on the series.

"Junior Brown was one of the guys who came on there," Isaak notes. "Not everybody knew him. The production crew didn't know country acts. But after he sat around and jammed in between takes, every one of them went out and bought a record. We had Trisha Yearwood on, and she just sang unbelievable, but when we were able to sneak people on that you don't usually see on TV, those are the ones I'm most proud of."

The DVD version of The Best of Chris Isaak features 18 music videos with the option of hearing his running commentary while the music plays.

"You can figure it out where you can watch all of the videos without me saying anything, which I think is a beautiful thing," he says. "Or if you're a glutton for punishment, you can turn it on, and I make comments while the videos are playing."

Isaak admits that it's been years since he'd seen some of the videos.

"I'm quick to turn off the TV if I'm on because I'm loath to look at myself that much," he explains. "But there were a lot of good times making those videos, so it wasn't a bad thing to look at. I think of the comments as mostly just wisecracks, so it was fun. I like to draw, so I drew some cartoons to give me an intro to the whole thing."

The CD version of the compilation includes 18 songs, including an unreleased acoustic version of "Forever Blue" and newly-recorded cover versions of Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" and Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me."

"A lot of times, people have asked me to sing an Orbison song," he says. "I never really did it that much, and I thought I should. I mean, I like the guy so much. I got to work with Roy when he was alive and got to hang out with him a little and write with him. He was probably the nicest guy I ever met in show business. For me to do one of his songs kind of felt real right. No one can sing it like Roy, so I tried to do a little of my own thing."

As for Cheap Trick's arena rock classic, he says, "That song does nothing but climb up and up and up, and I thought I wanted to see if I could do it and throw in some falsetto stuff and high notes."

Asked whether he's a fan of greatest hits albums, in general, Isaak replies, "I have some greatest hits albums I really like." In elaborating, the conversation reverts to classic country.

"Don Gibson has an album, and I think it's called Some Favorites of Mine," he says. "I have it on a German wax pressing. When I was a kid, I got it secondhand at a junk store. I just fell in love with it. I'm a huge Don Gibson fan."

Through the years, Isaak also expressed his respect for another Country Music Hall of Fame member, singer-songwriter Floyd Tillman.

"I had his phone number," Isaak says. "I still do. He's passed away now. Somebody gave it to me and said I should call Floyd. I must have dialed six out of every how many numbers and always stopped short because I always thought, 'What could I possibly have to say to Floyd Tillman?' To me, that guy was a legend and a genius. I mean, 'I Love You So Much It Hurts,' I must have sung a hundred thousand times. I love that stuff.

"When I'm in Nashville, I always go to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I'm like a kid at a candy store there. And then around the corner, I go to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. They had a bunch of DVDs of old performances by country artists, and Floyd Tillman was one of them. It's just amazing stuff. It's amazing to see him. It's a whole different world, man, when people really could sing and write."

A visit to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop can become an expensive proposition, as Isaak has learned.

"I walk out of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and I've gotta borrow money to pay the rent," he says. "The last time I was in there, I was like, 'You're kidding me? You have the German boxed set of Don Gibson?' I'd been looking for it for years -- with him singing with Los Indios Tabajaras [a Brazilian guitar duo popular in the U.S. during the'50s and '60s]. I went, 'I'll take it!' And they're like, 'Really? It's $200.' I walk out of there, and I'm broke every time. It's just such a cool shop, too. It's the last of the real record stores."

With the release of Isaak's new CD and DVD, he and his band will be touring throughout the summer.

"We're very much like my country heroes of old," he says. "We know our way around the bus real well."

Listen to The Best of Chris Isaak in its entirety and view his "Wicked Game" video.

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