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Chris Isaak travels beyond the sun

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2011

It is an obvious no-brainer that Chris Isaak tracked his most recent full-length, "Beyond the Sun," at the historic Sun Records in Memphis. Although Isaak is famous for his sexy Wicked Game hit, with its even sexier video, along with the natural humor in his witty Chris Isaak Show, this smooth operator is a roots rock guy deep down at heart.

With this new all covers album, Isaak heated it up with Ring of Fire and Great Balls of Fire and got his Elvis on with songs like Can't Help Falling in Love.

When Isaak finally got to Memphis to record in those hallowed grounds, this wasn't the first time he'd been there. "I had been there before to Sun Studio to just kind of pay tribute in a way, because we stopped the tour bus in the middle of the night as we went past. I said, 'We've got to stop, I want to see where it was that Elvis walked in and turned the key and started their rock and roll machine.' And so we had gone there and stood out front. "

"When we came back, we were going through and on tour, and I went in that room, and I clapped my hands. I always clap my hands - I remember looking at a house, I was trying to buy a house years ago, and I would walk in the rooms and clap my hands and the woman said, "What are you...?" And I said, "I want to hear what the rooms sound like." To me, it's important, because that's what I'm doing - I'm singing all the time."

Chris Isaak sings

" And I went in Sun, and I went, 'That's the best sounding room I think I ever walked in and heard.' I mean, just an amazing sound room. So once I'd heard it, I really kind of was excited by the idea of going in there and singing."

When Isaak finally got his chance to stand where Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison once stood so many years ago, the moment was even better than expected.

"It surpassed them," says Isaak, when asked how his experiences compared to his great expectations. "It was awesome," he continues. "I think part of it was as awesome as - it could have been - if somebody would have bought that (Sun Studio) that would have been, you know, Rock Co. Corp, and you would have had to go through attorneys to do everything, it would have been terrible."

"But we called up and the people were like, "Oh, yeah, we like your music. You want to come record? Okay, well, we do tours during the day, but we could probably knock the last tour off if you could start at like 4 or 5." I go, 'Perfect. We're musicians, we stay up late." And they said, "Well, if you get hungry, here's the keys to the diner next door. There's milkshakes and moon pies and you guys can have..." and they couldn't have been cooler. I said, "Is it all right if we take pictures in here or take pictures out front?" 'Yeah, go ahead. Whatever you want to do.'"

"And it was so un-corporate that I kind of felt like you really did have a feel of very easy-going... The cool thing, I think, about early rock & roll is there was no Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There was nobody going, "This is for eternity." They just went, "Let's have fun. We're going to be back there pickin' cotton next week."

Even though Isaak is not usually a guy that over-spiritualizes his experiences, this trip to Sun Studios was different. "I don't want to say I'm not spiritual because I think everybody's spiritual if you've got a brain. But I don't think of - I don't go in places and say, 'I feel the ghosts.' You know what I mean?" he says.

"But I have to say whatever it was, when you walk into that room and you're a musician, everybody in my band, everybody - all of us - I think it was just we had so much respect for the artists that had been in that room. I mean, for God's sake, you're sitting in the chair, or you're standing there singing, and you go, 'Howlin' Wolf stood right here. Elvis Presley was here. BB King played his guitar right there. Bill Black was playing bass there.' And all the sudden you're standing there and you're going, 'I want to do a great job. I'm going to do the best I can.' Because it's kind of out of respect for those guys."

If Isaak felt any particular ghost at all perhaps it was the underrated spirit of Carl Perkins.

"I was singing a Carl Perkins song, and I always thought Carl Perkins kind of got the short end of the fame," Isaak recalls. "He was really, in some ways, one of the most talented guys out of there because he was a songwriter and a great guitar player and a great singer. And he had the first big hit.

"But he never got quite the fame of Elvis or Johnny Cash. He was overshadowed in a way. But I was in there, and we were recording one of Carl Perkins' songs, and I looked up, and as I'm singing, we're recording, there's a picture of Carl Perkins on the wall, and the angle of his eyes and everything, he's looking right at me where I'm standing - and smiling. And it just felt like, 'Yeah, we're doing your song. We're digging you.' You know what I mean?"

It's common these days to see Johnny Cash shirts everywhere, from country festivals to Warped Tour dates. It's just as common to hear Cash's named dropped in mainstream country songs. However, what lifts Chris Isaak above the pack is that he does more than just drop the great ones' names here and there. He paid full-length tribute to some of his musical heroes with "Beyond the Sun."

More than that, though, he respects their art by writing and singing songs that hearken back to the glory days of rock and roll. He doesn't just honor the traditions; he carries them on and builds upon them. If that picture of Perkins in Sun Studios could talk, he'd probably say something like, I'm proud of you, son.' Isaak's simply cut from the same cloth as these masters. Perkins would be pleased to know that Chris Isaak is taking this wonderful American music to Sun Records and beyond.