There have been many pivotal moments in Chris Isaak's career, but none as rewarding as those spent with the artists who've helped mold him.
Still the cool, slick-haired rock crooner he was when director David Lynch introduced him to the world on the soundtrack to his 1986 film "Blue Velvet," Isaak has had the long and fruitful career many singer/songwriters would kill for.
Isaak is excited to take Bakersfield fans on a musical trip down memory lane when he makes a stop at the Fox Theater Thursday in support of "Beyond the Sun," a new album of classic rock 'n' roll covers.
But it won't be his first visit to the fair city.
"It was hot, it was summertime, and I remember we were standing onstage doing sound check and I look over and there's Buck Owens. He's watchin' our sound check. To say I'm a fan of Buck Owens doesn't say it -- I mean I'm nuts for him. He was standin' on the side of the stage, and we stopped sound check. I was in the middle of, 'I've Got a Tiger by the Tail ...,' and I look over and there's Buck watchin' me and he's smiling like, 'You kids.' He's standing there in a cowboy hat, a beautiful western suit."
"He's a tall, big guy, and he was just friendly and loquacious, telling stories, and we just gathered around him. There's pictures of it and it looks like school kids gathering around Babe Ruth."
Isaak was just a kid in Stockton, raiding his parents' record collection, when he discovered Owens and other musical rebels like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, artists who influenced not only his music but his personal style as well. Still dressing the part in his vintage suits and '50s hairdo, Isaak, 55, has managed to remain a unique presence in the pop world.
"There were a lot of times people blew past me in line because they were the hot item of the moment. But you know, I got no complaints. I had the same band for 27 years, and I like 'em -- they're nice guys and it's fun. I get to make the kinda music I like, and it's been a ball," he said.
He may be considered a rock revivalist, but Isaak, who has 15 albums to his credit, learned early there was room for only one king.
"For years, I made a point not to do any Elvis tunes in my set, because some people would come to my show and go, 'You look like Elvis.' I would have to go, 'But I'm doing my own material and have my own sound.' I realized that for people to take you seriously, you had to do your own material."
He did find success in the 1980s MTV era of music video mania, but even with his striking blue eyes and chiseled looks, his debut didn't make a dent on the Billboard charts.
His breakthrough came in 1989 with the release of "Heart Shaped World" and the haunting single "Wicked Game," which David Lynch selected for the soundtrack to his film "Wild at Heart." The song's steamy video -- featuring Isaak, supermodel Helena Christensen and not a lot of clothing -- certainly didn't hurt.
"Usually the question I get from guys is, 'Hey dude, Helena Christiansen, whoa. You were really doin' it on the beach, right?' It's always something like that. I try to answer, but I feel bad trying to explain to them: 'No, Helena was an actress, and she was pretending to like me.'"
For his latest album, "Beyond the Sun," he chose to record at the birthplace of rock 'n' roll: Sun Studios in Memphis, where Presley, Lewis and Cash all laid down some of their most iconic material.
"They don't rush you about a clock, and they don't have a bunch of rules. They're like, 'Come in and have fun.' And they were really open with us. We just recorded the old style."
"We put up the microphones, nobody put on headphones, and you just go for it all at one time, which is the big thing to do. I think Sun has got the right ideas. They're bringing back some of that original equipment because I think they're realizing that people aren't just coming there to see it as a museum. They're coming because that's because that's what people really wanna record there. They're not coming to make a disco record."
Opening with "Ring of Fire," Isaak echoes Cash with subtle effects and an unmistakable arrangement. It's the obvious choice to kick off a collection like this, but on Presley's "Tryin' to Get to You," he lays on the tenor with a sort of passion that, according to Isaak, made Presley's longtime guitar player Scotty Moore take notice.
"When I first put out this record, Scotty goes, 'I'm surprised to hear anyone hittin' those notes. Elvis only did it when he was 18, and I know you're older than that.'"
Isaak, who contributes one original, covers 11 other classics, including Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," Carl Perkins' "Dixie Fried," Cash's "I Walk the Line," and more. There's also a double-disc version available with the complete sessions.
"If nobody does those songs, and people have the attitude that they're untouchable, people are gonna forget about them. It's amazing to me how many number 1 hits songs Elvis had that people don't even know. "How's the World Treating You" was a number 1 hit. Now, it's almost obscure. In my mind, let's say if some 15-year-old kid gets this record by mistake, he listens to it, and goes, 'I like these songs,' and his dad goes, 'Those are nothing. You should hear the original.' I'd love it. I think the dad's right -- you should hear the original."
To bring the sound and feel of that era to life, Isaak said he's spared no details for his show. He plans to transform the Fox into a Memphis nightclub, complete with a sales pitch too cool to refuse.
"Let me brag. Not braggin' about me, but about my damn band, and I am so proud of 'em, because for what we do, I don't think you can beat these guys. We play the hits that people come to see, and we play songs off our earlier records."
"And then, in the middle of the show, we switch the stage around. We bring out a stand-up bass, upright piano and kinda do an entire tribute to that Sun Session sound. It's like a show within a show. The piano catches fire, there's an inflatable pin-up girl onstage, the band has dance steps. It's entertainment. So, if you don't like the music, you're gonna like the show. And who doesn't like Johnny Cash? If you don't like Johnny Cash, you're in the wrong place."