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A Country Boy Finds His Mark : Pop music: Kostas tries to infuse his commercial songs with integrity by pushing ‘the words against the stone of reality and life, to see whether they ring true.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How low were Kostas’ spirits in the mid-'80s?

“I was discouraged with life itself,” says the singer-songwriter. “I didn’t see too much of an avenue for me in life at that time.”

It looked like a sorry end for the Montana resident’s two-decade musical career. He had built a following on the Northwest club circuit, but now was faced with dwindling opportunities, as well as indifference from the big-time music business.

But when things were darkest, relief came from unexpected quarters. Kostas had never considered himself a country songwriter per se, but some of his songs had gone through the pipeline to Nashville, and MCA Records executive Tony Brown was intrigued. He contacted Kostas, and with a Buddy Holly gallop and exuberant spirit, Patty Loveless’ recording of his “Timber I’m Falling in Love” soon raced to the top of the country charts.

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That 1988 success opened the door. Kostas’ writing credit has returned regularly to the country Top 10 on records by Loveless, Travis Tritt (the wry “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man”), Holly Dunn, McBride & the Ride, Dwight Yoakam and Martina McBride.

He’s also been sought out by country’s cutting edge. He’s a major contributor to Yoakam’s songbook, co-writing four songs on the 2-million-selling “This Time” album, and he’s represented by six songs on the Mavericks’ acclaimed “What a Crying Shame” collection.

Kostas’ songs acknowledge commercial formulas, but they unfailingly transform and subvert expectations with verbal and musical hooks that draw on pop and R&B; as well as country sources.

“I know that at this point in time I focus my little songs toward the radio,” says Kostas, 45, sitting at the bar at the Largo club just before playing a solo show.

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“But even in doing so, I want to implant a little bit of human integrity,” he continues, drinking black coffee and fingering an unlit cigar. “Even if it is geared for the radio it can still be good. We’re witnesses to lots of popular songs that were real songs. You have to push the words against the stone of reality and life, to see whether they ring true. Otherwise you end up with a piece of fluff.”

Yoakam’s guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, who co-wrote the Mavericks’ “Neon Blue” with Kostas, doesn’t hesitate to use the G-word in his evaluation.

“He’s truly a genius--I think music just comes to him,” says Anderson in a separate interview. “Writing with him, he’s just so fast. . . . I might come up with the same idea he had, but it was kind of like I was sprinting to keep up with him. By the time I thought of (something) he’d already be there.”

Kostas (who drops his last name, Lazarides, for professional reasons) moved to the United States from Greece with his parents when he was 7, settling in Billings, Mont. An only child, he took to music early, falling especially hard for the winsome pop of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. As a boy selling newspapers and shining shoes, he made the rounds of Billings’ honky-tonks, where he absorbed the country hits on the jukeboxes and often sat in to sing with the live bands.

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With junior high came garage bands--Stones, Beatles, surf music and whatever else was popular. He hit the road with groups after high school, and by the early ‘70s he was presenting his own music in both solo and band settings.

Now he’s trying to come full circle and re-establish his performing side. His first album, “X S in Moderation,” came out recently on Liberty Records, and though he’s playing solo now, he has dreams of fronting a band again.

While in Los Angeles with his wife, Hope, and their 4-month-old daughter Sofia for an extended songwriting stay--his list of potential collaborators includes Yoakam, Anderson, Clint Black, Marty Stuart and Jim Messina--he’ll be performing at several clubs, including the Palomino tonight and the Kibitz Room on Friday.

Because he spends most of his time at home in Belgrade, Mont., where he recently bought and renovated an old, three-story building to accommodate his expanding “junk” collection, Kostas has acquired a reputation as a reclusive eccentric--an exaggeration, he thinks.

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“I’ve always had good friends,” he says. “In a lot of ways I was a loner, but music has always been a bridge between me and people. Music is a vehicle into yourself and into other people and into the world around you and into the universe as well. And it’s been a great friend to me.”

* Kostas plays tonight at the Palomino, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, 9 p.m. $5 . (818) 764-4010. Also Friday at Canter’s Kibitz Room, 419 N. Fairfax Ave . , 10 p.m. Free. (213) 651-2030.


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