Dwight Yoakam is laughing. A lot. Over and over. If the once serious, whip thin hardcore traditionalist with the serious honky tonk bent was a man tortured and austere, these days the heart throb with the serious Johnny Horton, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard affliction has lightened way up.
“I really looked back and realized: there was never anything to worry about,” confesses the man known around Los Angeles in the late 80s as a legendary control freak. “The music tends to make itself evident and take care of itself…
“It’s third parties who create an anxiousness and anticipatory worry… They project it into the process. But in the end, it’s just a process.”
With Three Pears, Dwight Yoakam returns not only to the major label fold, but to Warner/Reprise, his home for nearly two decades beginning with his expanded from an indie e.p. Guitars, Cadillacs After Population Me, Blame The Vain and Dwight Sings Buck on indies Audium, then New West, the man who took a hard punk left right into rigid classic country during LA’s cowpunk explosion is finding there isn’t nearly the difference most people would think.
And that’s good, because Three Pears has a juiciness to its sting that closes a circle with Yoakam’s past. It also closes a circle with Yoakam’s life as a struggling artist, trying to put together a band that made sense while living in Pete Anderson’s laundry room somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.
Laughing again, Yoakam concedes, “This album, I finally made a record that was as cow punk as people said I was… ‘Heart Like Mine’ had that really ragged aggression. I never stripped (what I do) down to that raw extreme that folks like Mojo (Nixon) and Skid Roper, Country Dick and the Beat Farmers were bringing.
"I mean, you had the Dils, who became Rank & File, the Plugz, who became the Cruzados. But for me, I always stayed with that real traditional thing that made me more extreme in a whole different way.”
Yoakam’s blistering performances – and the advocacy of Blaster Dave Alvin, whom Yoakam would later cover for a #1 with “White Cadillac” – created a buzz that swept nation. Long before that Oak e.p. arrived in a plain brown wrapper with Hell Comes To Your House, word was rumbling out of California about a skinny kid with a brutal take on Bakersfield country.
One of the folks with their ear to the ground was legendary Warner A&R czar Lenny Waronker, the man who’d build Burbank’s recorded empire. “Lenny was one of the first to come out to our ‘Listening Party’ at the Roxy in 1986 – and he brought John Fogerty! Emmylou Harris came that night, too…
“He called me up after, and said, ‘I’m as proud of the records I’ve made on Ry Cooder and Randy Newman as I am the ones with Fleetwood Mac that broke all the records. My only counsel to you is if anybody here (at Warners) – or anywhere else, tells you to do something that goes against your grain, don’t do it! Because (in the end) it is about the music.”
On a tour bus rumbling down the 5 Freeway to San Diego, the italics pour down the telephone. Emphasis made, though not emphatic, these are words Yoakam built his singular career on. No matter the tide or the trend, there was a surge to his post-Bakersfield country that demanded to be heard. It was biting, insistent and always, always twangy and uncompromisingly full-tilt.
When New West head Cameron Strang went to Warner Publishing, Yoakam made the decision to explore his options. “I met with Joe Galante,” he recalls, “when he was still at RCA.
“And (John) Espo(sito) came out to hear some pieces of things in the summer of 2010. Then, I went to a meeting at my office, and Lenny was there…”
Things started falling into place. Warner felt more and more like coming home, and Waronker, now a consultant to the label he’d built, became increasingly involved in an album that saw collaborations with Beck, Kid Rock and Ashley Monroe.
“Lenny Executive Produced from the right hand seat of my Corvette,” Yoakam explains. “Literally. I’d go over to Burbank, and they’d ask, ‘Would you like to come up to the office?’ and I was like, ‘No, have him come down…’
“We’d be sitting in the car, engine idling at the curb and listening to the roughs and tracking dates as loud as it would go. I’d literally come over from the studio, and we’d hear what we had.”
Old school and hardcore, Yoakam was all about the way the tracks rolled out of the speakers. He knows the immediacy and power of sonic impact, having grown up on “Marc Bolan, Hank Senior, that Buddy Holly double live album, Gary Stewart and of course, Emmylou. I had a hot pink Made In The Shade, and the track would change halfway through ‘Tumblin’ Dice.’ But all of that…”
Is what makes Three Pears rock. After finishing the promotion and touring for his Dwight Sings Buck homage, which “I treated like a regular studio record,” it took a year to start writing, a little longer to find his way back into the studio. And when he did, itchy to create, but not quite sure where he was going, he enlisted Beck to help..
“Beck doing ‘Loser’… That was roller rink rock! That’s Paul Rogers and Free, that ‘Alriiiiigght noooow’ kind of thing that’s every carnival midway with the guy at the top of the Himalaya, barking, ‘You wanna go faster…’,”
Yoakam carnies up. “I think my thing is like that: closer to the original template of rock & roll. We were way counter, so far afield, it made country rock & roll.
“And this started with me calling him up, saying ‘I’ve got this idea for one thing. I’ve got this Creedence idea, which most people when they do it, they do swamp… But I told him, ‘This is more a ‘Bad Moon Rising’ vibe. “
Beck, who believed Yoakam’s “pure raw self” was plenty accessible, had his friend come over, had his engineer lay down a drum groove that fit what they’d been discussing. Set up in the studio, Yoakam sang and played his guitar for a taut “Heart Like Mine,” certain all would be replaced.
“Beck was in the next room, having something to eat and he came in. He was like ‘What’s that?” And I said just a scratch guitar part. He said, ‘I wouldn’t be so sure…’
“He recognized a youthful, almost reckless innocence to that. He told me, ‘We can get 3 or 4 studio guys to come in here and do it, but it won’t sound like that.’ And he was right.
“It took me back to being 16 years old, back to my first bands. Simplicity is easier said than done… But it set me up for the rest of the record. Bass and drums, and me. That’s how we cut most of it…
“It was honestly the most honest thing I could do in this moment. I realized: I know how to do this. It was fun. It was gratifying, because throughout I’d be singing parts to people to communicate, cause I hear lots of counter-melodies – like Brian Wilson and Boyce & Hart, so it all became part of it.”
Like so many of the credibility insurgents of the late ‘80s, Dwight Yoakam knows music backwards and forwards. He can talk exhaustively Bakersfield, rockabilly, the melodicism of the Ramones, the Stones, Johnny Cash, bluegrass and David Bowie. He fears no oeuvre, as the fat r&b of the James Jamerson-evoking bass line on the Bobby Richey co-written “Take Hold of My Hand” that opens Three Pears attests.
As way of a simple explanation, he offers, “I am not a ‘China Grove’ man! I was a ‘Rebel Rebel’ man. Now that was some trash guitar….” And the brazen soul/rock & roll collision helped ignite his Kid Rock co-write. “That song,” he says with another laugh. “Twenty one years and five hours to write that!
“I went over to Bobby’s house in Malibu Canyon, and there was some talk of maybe him co-producing or whatever. But I got out there, played him the bit I had and he was excited! He was typing on his computer; we were just throwing out lines and putting pieces together – and it was… done!”
Done. BANG! Something the notoriously slaving songwriter/singer is not known for. And yet, post-Beck, this time he let the music tumble, caught what was there – be it the cartoonishly child-like “Waterfall” or the classic tavern croon of “Never Alright” – and savored every note going down.
“The further into it we got,” he explains, “the freer I became. The thing that happens take its own course if you let it… When it was over, I was just exhilarated. I was more excited about then process then than I was when began!
“When I was working with Beck, there was no concept involved in what we were doing. Each track was what it was supposed to be: Just no rules and no reason for any rules other than making music that resonates. It’s the Stones colliding with Johnny Cash (on ‘Heart Like Mine’), but it wasn’t intentional so much as the cross-pollination of DNA.
“Johnny Cash was rock & roll. From Creedence, too, I was searching for that genre that was transcendent of the labels. You ever see Waylon Jennings on ‘The Johnny Cash Show’? With Jessi Colter and the whole band… It was psycho-delic! It knew no bounds, and it rocked.”
Yoakam is now talking like a locomotive. Hard, fast, momentum driven by a verbal e=mc squared. Like talking about directors, obscure cinema, channels of distribution, music is something he knows and can dissect at 40 paces.
He’s not bludgeoning, just sweeping the listener up in his obvious passion for the topic at hand. And the artists, regardless of genre, that he reveres.
The title track, a seemingly nonsensical bit of imagery and cosmic truth, is grounded in John Lennon’s “lost period” in California with Yoko Ono sanctioned consort may Pang. Marked by legendarily reckless nights, there was something about that beyond limits living that struck a chord inside the man who eats neither flour nor sugar, let alone meat.
“My girlfriend said I just started singing, walking across the kitchem. By the time I got to my scratch pad, there it was: the chorus, the first verse! I wasn’t thinking it was going to be the title track… I just remember this picture of him with three pairs of glasses stacked up on his head, thinking, ‘There you are, John, huh?! Three pairs of glasses – and that’s just about it.
“If anything could be taken from John Lennon’s life, that was it, you know? To write a song like ‘Julia,’ then come back with ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun,’ then the screaming things he did… That is amazing, and well, there he is with three pairs glasses…
“So when you get to the second chorus of ‘All I want for you is happiness…’ That is the deal. It really is. I even deliberately misspelled the title in tribute to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Thought I’d twist it again with (their kind of) humor.”
After all this time, all the albums, the awards., the ground broken, music would hardly to seem to be a laughing matter. Yet with Three Pears, an album that hits hard, moves from soul to retro, saloon crooner to honky dust-up on vintage jukeboxers like Rose Maphis’ “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke & Loud, Loud Music,” Yoakam is harder and looser all at once.
Not one to flex for the sake of flexing, he drops his guard even further. While the vanity of largely self-production would deem “and then I…” grandiosity if only to secure the sanctity of the world should be in order, Yoakam levels his truth.
“In the moment,” he confesses about the lack of a masterplan, “we were just making a joyful noise. We were left to our own devices and having fun. This is as goofy good as it can get.”
And then Dwight Yoakam cracks a little giggle. Nothing gut-busting for sure, but something that demonstrates just how ticklish this music is for the man who has suffered over the years for his art.