"I wish I were Johnny Mathis," writes Hairspray director John Waters in his new book, Role Models. "So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect. Effortlessly boyish at over seventy years old, with a voice that still makes all of America want to make out." Mathis, 75, has made out pretty well himself: His 130 or so albums have sold an estimated 350 million copies. A singer for all seasons, Mathis returns this month with Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville, which contains "Crazy," "Make the World Go Away," "You Don't Know Me" and other country classics.
Q: It's been five years since Isn't It Romantic: The Standards Album. How have you been keeping busy since then?
A: When I'm just giving concerts, and not recording, I spend a lot of time on the golf course. It's a nice way of keeping my focus. There's no negativity in golf; it's all positive. A group of Asians here in Los Angeles have even made it part of their religion. It gives me a chance to get involved with other people in a way that has nothing to do with my music.
Q: What's your regular course?
A: The Riviera Country Club in Santa Monica, which is easily one of the 25 best courses in the States. It's challenging, but you don't lose your balls or get too frustrated on it. I play with about a 12 handicap. I got down to about a 7 while I was playing with a touring pro. He and his wife were fans of mine, and he gave me lessons. I improved quite a lot.
Q: Did you hear much country music while you were growing up in Texas and California?
A: My dad was a wonderful singer who played the piano very well, although he didn't read music. The music I heard for the first few years of my life was what my dad called "sweet" music; mostly love ballads, and some of it was country in nature. We listened to a country station in San Francisco, too, so I was accustomed to hearing music with guitar accompaniment. Country music has always been special for me because it's always so sincere. If it isn't sincere, it isn't palatable. I read something kind of profound recently about country music being simply "three chords and the truth."
Q: How did you choose the songs on Let It Be Me?
A: It was absolutely amazing for me to be able to choose only the songs that I liked. The one I was most adamant about, however, was "Shenandoah," which is probably more traditional than country.
Q: What was recording in Nashville like for you?
A: I reconnected with Vince Gill while I was there and met the wonderful Lane Brody, who sang along with me on several of the songs — and, of course, Alison Krauss, who accompanies me on "Let It Be Me." Our band was absolutely extraordinary, too. They didn't have any music, just little pieces of paper with numbers on them: the chord changes. They knew every song I was going to sing right from the beginning, probably because they'd played them a million times before. Fred Mollin, our producer, was familiar with my music and worked very fast. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, which helped me a great deal, because I have no idea what I'm going to do when I go into the studio.
Q: It's easy to see why country music would appeal to you. You sound as sincere in conversation as you do on record.
A: I don't have a drop of sarcasm in me. But when you put your music out in the world, you never really know who listens to it, or why. I'm always flattered when somebody I really like listens to me. Once I saw George Halas, the late former head coach of the Chicago Bears, on TV. He was an older man at the time, in his 80s, and he had my music playing in the background during his daily workout by his swimming pool. And when someone like John Waters writes about you in a book, you think, "I guess I dodged a bullet."
Q: Have you read any other good books lately?
A: A musician friend gave me Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. I heard the Carpenters' audition tape before they signed to A&M and kept my ears open for them along the way. I loved their music. She was such a brilliant singer, and her brother did all the right things for her. But the book is very sad. It made me aware of how fortunate I've been in my career to always have good, upstanding people looking out for my best interests.