Montana, stark and bitterly cold, beautiful and life affirming, is the lifelong home of Kostas Lazarides, known to most people who know of his work as just “Kostas,” one of country music’s best and most successful songwriters. This is a story of a voice from the wide-open spaces. A key player during the years of 90’s Nashville Cool Country, his list of writing credits is stellar. He has written, or co-written more than a dozen Top Tens, including the Patty Loveless chart-topper “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” several Dwight Yoakam genre-defining songs including, “Turn it On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” plus singles for The Mavericks, Marty Stuart, and many others.
I met Kostas at his home, a former antique store on Main Street in Belgrade, Montana, just down the road from Bozeman. Kostas turns 70 this year and he’s still writing his achingly beautiful songs, singing them now in his own voice. Accompanied by his dog Bella, we wound our way through a lifetime worth of souvenirs and up to the rooms above the store where, impossibly, even more souvenirs covered virtually every available space. A coffee table has, among other things, a collection of handcrafted knives, each with a story that Kostas can retell as if the knife was acquired yesterday. The walls are covered with photographs and pictures, some with Kostas as part of the tableau, but the majority are just images that piqued his interest.
Kostas turns 70 this year and he’s still writing his achingly beautiful songs, singing them now in his own voice. He is a behind-the-scenes artist, creating entire worlds with just his voice and guitar, and always has something hopeful and beautiful to say.
What is it like to be a mature writer instead of a young guy coming into Nashville for the first time?
I’m just at a different point on a big circle.
A writing career is a circle, but you don’t start on the top. You start somewhere at the bottom and you start writing. And when you start writing, you are so influenced by the things that you hear that the first stage you fall into is imitating and emulating other people. And then you come into your own creative process in accordance with the requirements around you.
If you’ve got a writing deal, you write a lot. You write on a daily basis, you can write five songs a day if you wanted to…you could write a lot more than that if you wanted to.
Some people estimate that you’ve written 800 songs.
Eight hundred? A lot more than that! But that’s not important, that doesn’t mean anything. That just means I wore out a lot of rubber in the brain department.
Once you get into a situation where you have a reason for being productive and prolific, that’s just what you do. Once the peak ends, you no longer have the fire to write as much (gestures with his fist as if to indicate a fighting spirit), but the songs that you’re writing in the moment now have a certain sense of purity. They are snapshots of where you are, and who you are, at that time.
Do you have an era of songs that you prefer?
No. I like every part of the deal. My first serious song I wrote the winter of 1969. And it was all about this acid trip I took. It’s called “Mato Man” and I still remember some of the verses today. It was a crazy night.
Yeah, Mato. To me the Mato man was a part of the subconscious. You’re 19, 20…you have this really strange experience, and out comes this song. That was my first real step. I’d written songs before, in the early 60’s, but that goes back into that imitating, emulating stage.
Who were you emulating?
Everybody from the Byrds to…well, I don’t even know who it was. Maybe it was Bob Dylan, I listened to everything. I was playing in bands, and I was always hands-on, touching the wire of sound that the radio was producing. I was a poor boy, but I could afford to drive around with my radio on.
That’s true. There were alternative rock stations, some weird country AM station, music everywhere and every show had a particular character.
I listened and absorbed every sound that was being produced on the radio, TV, records. I heard what other friends would say, “you gotta hear these guys,” and I’d look for it, listen to it, say, you’re full of crap! (laughs) In those days, in the 50’s, 60’s, the 40’s, and the 30’s, there was a pureness in the approach that people took. There was a pureness in their styles. They sang in the natural purity of their own voices. They didn’t try to screw it up by bending the notes and making it try and sound like somebody just set a fuse on fire. It wasn’t necessary. The importance back then was the purity of the music, the purity of the song and the artist performing. So, when you heard voices blending, it might have been the McGuire Sisters, Don and Phil Everly, or the Ames brothers, each one had a distinct, pure, natural sound. They all were memorable.
Is that where your sense of melody came from?
My sense of melody came from having been born in Greece, a Balkan country in the Mediterranean. The music in Greece at the time I was there, for the first seven or eight years of my life, was heavily influenced by middle-eastern music.
The Greek music of the 40’s and 50’s was also heavily doused in what I call Greek blues, Rembetika (Greek regional folk music). And it was rich in melody. In lyrical content it was all about having to leave your home, leave your parents, leave the person you loved and go to another land and try to find another life, because there was nothing for you on that barren rock back home.
To me all those nations have been involved with one another for at least 4,000-5,000 years, so we can’t ever say who came up with that lick. But, we can definitely say that there were players, heavy-handed players, in the scene of the Mediterranean. And part of that scene was the music of the day. There was folk music because there was pain. There were tears and there was joy, in everyday life. And people expressed themselves back then, as they do now, through their music.
We are back in his living room and Kostas has taken out an old, scarred, Martin Classical, the same model made famous by Willie Nelson.
Can you play something that you wrote recently?
That’s a beautiful song. It sounds like something from another era of music. Did you ever try to intentionally write a “kind” of song or did you always write what you wanted to write?
No. The songs are all whatever comes out in that moment of time. I’ve never set out to write anything in particular. I’m influenced by things I’ve heard.
Did anybody come to you and say, ‘we need this kind of song for an album,’ and you wrote to that request?
Did you ever co-write a song that you later wished your name wasn’t on?
No. There may have been a few out there that might have a little of that. But you have to look at the positive side, somebody played it, and somebody bought it, and somebody paid me for it. I have no regrets.
You were talking about being a writer and musician, making a living, and how you were a good dishwasher, but you hated it. But I know you played in a lot of working bands. Can you tell me the names of some of those bands?
If you must know, one of the bands was called Hunger. We were trying, but we weren’t too successful (laughs). And there was Poison Ivy, The Jinx- we were living up to our names. My first band back in high school was The Sound Establishment. Today I use Kostas and His Bad Habits or The Jason Bussey Band. It’s my alter ego. And if you had a line-up of Ramones-looking kind of band guys, skinny, tattooed, and hunched over and you asked, “who is Jason Bussey?” They’d all raise their right hands.
What did you think of that era of music (punk)?
I thought that it was a vibrant thing. Whether they were interpreting other people’s music or their own, they were good.
Let’s go back to your Nashville years. Are you still friends with Marty Stuart? He did some terrific recordings of your songs.
Yes. We worked together in 1991. He went on to write with Paul Kennerley. That’s where he found his spark to get on the charts with “Little Things,” and “Hillbilly Rock.”
As I recall, you two also charted?
Yeah, we had “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long,” and a couple more that we wrote.
What else do you remember about your time in Nashville?
I was like a kid at the fair. I got to ride on every ride on the midway. I got to go in the freak shows, and see the bearded-lady, and see the Octopus guy, and see all of the characters there. And they were all just very entertaining and charming.
Did anybody ever ask you what the hell you were doing in Nashville, a Greek-born guy from Montana with one name?
This question stops Kostas in his tracks. But there’s a look in his eyes that is looking away from the past toward the future. He doesn’t answer but his bemusement is obvious. He never answers the question.
We talk a little about his family and take a tour of the rest of his home, winding down through an entire floor of souvenirs, into a basement filled with taxidermy, old games, pinball machines, and a guitar collection worthy of a museum. There’s a story for everything. There’s a song for every story and memory. There is more music to play.
Nathan Bell is an award-winning songwriter, performer and journalist. His album “Er Gwaetha Pawb a Phopeth, Live from Pembroke Dock, Wales” is due out in late July on Angry Stick Records. The interview and accompanying video are presented in conjunction with Tonewood Amps.