Dwight Yoakam: Meandering through the Americana Camp
The early 1980s were a transitional time for American music. The punk world had already deconstructed rock and roll, and pop music made a seismic shift toward disco a few years before. West Coast bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, and the Flying Burrito Brothers had bridged the divide between rock and country a decade or two earlier. And, while in retrospect those groups offered the first benchmark of Americana, the origins of that form were yet to be fully vetted. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for something new to brew in the Golden State, especially in the teeming night spots of L.A. There, innovative outfits like X, Los Lobos, Green on Red, the Long Ryders, and the Blasters were finding fertile ground for their unlikely blend of an insurgent attitude and ‘60s folk-boom sensibilities.
These bands were revolutionary for their time, sounding as if the Ramones had suddenly developed a hankering for jamming with Gram Parsons around a campfire, and the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson agreed to call the tunes. At the time, the scene was referred to as cowpunk and, given California’s traditional free-spirited symbiosis, it was allowed plenty of room to flourish.
This was the landscape into which a young Dwight Yoakam sauntered when he opted to explore the ever-shifting opportunities of Los Angeles. Until that time, Yoakam’s travels had taken him through the heartland, far afield of more daring circumstance.
He was born October 23, 1956, in Pikeville, Kentucky – by all accounts a perfect place to foster the music he’d make later on. But his family soon moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he was raised. His parents named him Dwight David Yoakam, an all-American name at the time, but he insists it was not chosen in honor of then-President Eisenhower. “My father’s name was David,” he explains. “On the other hand, my uncle would always call me Ike.”
They Didn’t Call It Country
Yoakam’s first musical inclinations steered him toward rock and roll, and he played with a couple garage bands while in high school. Later, Yoakam spent a brief stint at Ohio State University, but ultimately decided to pursue a career as a recording artist instead, and moved to Nashville to seek his fortunes as a singer. At the time, Music CIty was basking in the afterglow of the Urban Cowboy phenomenon. Songwriters who could extend the country crossover and push at the parameters of the mainstream were the ones who succeeded. Yoakam quickly decided it wasn’t the vibe he was looking for. In an instant, he changed course and headed to California. There, he finally felt at home.
“In 1978,” recalls, “I went to the Whiskey and saw the Blasters and Robert Gordon, and that was all it took to inspire me to play the rock clubs. Over the next couple of years, when I moved to the San Fernando [Valley], I was playing the hillbilly clubs. When [producer/guitarist] Pete Anderson and I got together in 1980, I was playing this bar called the Corral in the Valley. It was this blue collar, classic Urban Cowboy audience. I had the sense that something was about to shift. … Country music – my version and the way I was doing it – allowed me to have all these great players on my early demos. David Mansfield played fiddle and mandolin, Terry McGee was playing guitar, and all these other great musicians were contributing.”
With his self-released debut EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., Yoakam established a touchstone by which all his future endeavors would be measured. That EP had a reckless, rock and roll attitude to be sure, a stance that was decidedly in sync with the cowpunk scene. In sync, but not entrenched.
“Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. didn’t have cowpunk on it,” Yoakam points out, looking back. “It was neo-hillbilly music. But we were in that [cowpunk] scene and it allowed us to present that traditional hillbilly music. They didn’t call it country because what we were doing was more raucous.”
Mic Harrison, leader of Knoxville, Tennessee’s revered roots-rock band the High Score, remembers how hard it hit him. “I grew up listening to country music my folks would play, but I didn’t care for it. [Then,] in 1986, a couple of country records came out that changed my mind. One of which was Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc. It had great songs, great vocals, and Pete Anderson absolutely blew my mind on guitar. It made me realize I could love AC/DC and someone like Dwight Yoakam at the same time.”
Yet, even though Yoakam had struck a nerve, no one knew quite what to call his music. “When we finished the sessions,” he remembers, “I said to the engineer, ‘It’s so hillbilly, they’re going to call it rock and roll.’ A couple years later, in the fall of ’84, I opened for Nick Lowe at the Hollywood Palace over on Vine Street, and I remember Bonnie Garner, who was running RCA at that time, saying ‘I don’t know, it’s awfully rock and roll.’ So my prediction came true.
“When Pete and I began to play together in ’82,” he adds, “he and I would get fired from the country nightclubs. I was kicking off my set with Bill Monroe, ‘Hear Me Calling,’ but they wanted to hear the current, contemporary hits like Kenny Rogers. I was a man without a country or a radio station.”
Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. With his preference for low-slung cowboy hats and embroidered denim jackets, people figured him for a contemporary country artist anyway. He aligned himself with the sound of Buck Owens and Bakersfield, but his cool posturing set him apart. Country music saw him as rock and roll; rock and rollers saw him as country. Yoakam bridged both worlds.
“When ’83 rolled around,” he continues, “there was a scene that emerged with bands like Lone Justice, Los Lobos, and all these other bands that were made up of punk players who were attempting to interpret country music. We were able to walk in and say, ‘Did you mean this?’ and then I’d do my version of hillbilly music. There was a sense that we were on the precipice of the moment, and that the door would open and allow me to do this for a large audience. It made me realize I could have the success … [and] how and where it would lead.”
“Honky Tonk Man” in a Rock and Roll World
The formal christening of Americana was still years away, but Yoakam was clearly on to something. Success came quickly. His remake of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” became the first country music video to get played on the then-fledgling MTV.
Remembering how big of a deal that early success was, Pete Anderson told the Dallas Observer’s Darryl Smyers in a 2011 interview, “I’m really proud of the music we made. We worked really hard and made our stand. We were one of the few Nashville acts to record in California. I think the label just sort of tolerated us because we sold records. … They figured as long as we were selling records, they would leave us alone. And we ended up selling 20 million records.”
Yoakam, too, is grateful for the freedom and support that Warner Brothers gave him at the start of his career. “I am fortunate that I was signed to a label that allowed an artist to maintain their bearing in terms of intuition, no matter what,” he remarks. “The first time I met [Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker was at the 1986 record release show for Guitar Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. … He called me the next day, after he introduced me to John Fogerty and Emmylou Harris the night before, and said, ‘You don’t know me other than meeting me last night. I’ve listened to this record and I saw you in person last night. The only advice I have for you is that if – anytime throughout your career – if anyone tells you to do something that’s against your instincts or intuition, do not do it.’ I think that’s a pretty impressive thing for the president of a major record label to tell one of his artists.”
Yoakam took that advice to heart and it paid off quickly. He re-released Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. on Warner Brothers and followed it with a string of super successful LPs – Hillbilly Deluxe, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room and If There Was a Way – all within the span of the next four years.
Each of those efforts immediately captivated country critics and audiences alike. To date, he’s garnered 17 Grammy nods, all in the country music category. “Country radio embraced ‘Honky Tonk Man’” he says. “They embraced Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. They embraced the next albums and gave us several hits, including ‘Little Sister,’ ‘Old Ways,’ and ‘Streets of Bakersfield.’ They didn’t embrace me as an artist but they embraced the tracks because they worked for the format, and it allowed them to embrace a disparate audience at times.”
With the willingness of country radio to feature artists who were slightly askew of the traditional tears in their beers sentiments – newcomers Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and kd lang chief among them – it was quickly becoming clear to mainstream audiences that a roots-related movement was taking form. This had a lot to do with attitude and willingness to stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, John Fogerty, and Chris Hillman, albeit in limited measures. Seizing on those sentiments, Yoakam managed to bolster his standing with rock audiences, touring with bands such as X and Husker Du, covering songs by Queen, the Clash, the Grateful Dead, and Cheap Trick, and collaborating with artists who might have otherwise seemed far afield of his rootsy origins — Beck, Kid Rock, and ZZ Top, to name a few.
“We were doing what Americana became,” Yoakam says, looking back on that slow evolution. “I was part of this other scene. … I remember when I was playing a string of dates in London and Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe came out one night. They got it. They knew what Americana was before we had a term for it, as evidenced by the music they were making with Rockpile and Brinsley Schwarz. Then in 1991, I met Mick Jagger when he came to my show at the Hamersmith Odeon. We had a rock audience there that night. He brought along Ron Wood, and again, those guys got it. They realized that it was something that transcended a genre boundary.
As many people as “got it,” and as much as country radio backed him up, clearly, that initial embrace also had its limitations. Yoakam cannot only readily recount his string of successes, but also the failures. “I had a run of about 18 Top 20 commercial country radio singles,” he explains. “The album Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room had two very quick number ones, but other things off that album didn’t work for them. The greatest hits album didn’t work at all at country radio in 1989. I had two more hits in ’88, but nothing in ’89 and nothing in 1990. Then If There Was a Way came out and we had four top five singles from that album. Then there was a bit of a lull until ’93 when “Ain’t That lonely Yet,’ ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’ and ‘Fast as You’ all charted.
“I’m really fortunate and lucky to be able to continue doing this and have this much fun doing it,” he adds, having replayed the list of his ups and downs. “But I never thought about it too deeply. I might have had more of those Grammys if I had. I’ve had success, but it’s always relative. … The last person I want to bore is me, and that’s a strength but probably a weakness as well. I don’t want to be bored musically, and I don’t think anybody wants to be. I want to be inspired.”
So, as the ‘90s progressed, radio’s infatuation began to taper off. With his cowboy hat, tight jeans, and penchant for posturing onstage, Yoakam was beginning to be seen by some as a bit of a novelty act. A string of albums in the late ‘90s and early oughts – A Long Way Home, dwightyoakamacoustic.net, Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, Population Me, Blame the Vain, and a soundtrack, South of Heaven, West of Hell were well-received critically but failed to match the success of his earlier outings.
Meanwhile, the rise of Americana, the very style he had helped pioneer, was beginning. Naturally, Yoakam was quick to see its potential.
“The whole Americana environment and the whole sub-genre that it is, is one of the healthiest things that could have happened to American roots music,” he declares. “Any form of American music that has that singularity about it, that has to do with the larger scope of American culture, the admonition to ‘Go west, young man, go west’ is, in a bigger sense, at the heart of what this country is all about. … [And] that’s what Americana is, at its best.”
A Man of Contradictions
In his book Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, author Don McLeese writes, “One of the many contradictions that makes Yoakam such a provocative artist is that his loquacious reality is so at odds with the brooding image of the noir cowboy who keeps his visage hidden beneath his cowboy hat and his thoughts to himself, preserving that lip curl for his singing. He’s a flamboyant, even electrifying performer, but one never gets the sense that he’s revealing too much of himself beneath those flashy outfits with jeans so tight they seem painted on his swiveling hips. Away from the stage, Dwight has no such flash or airs. And he has no qualms about revealing himself as a balding guy with a few wrinkles and a bit of a paunch.”
To underscore that point, when Yoakam was late for our interview for this article, his explanation was: “They put way too much on the schedule with no window.” The reason for cramming all his press appointments into one day, he said, was because he had been on jury duty and this particular day happened to be a court holiday. Had he offered a more glamourous explanation, it might have been more in keeping with his Hollywood image. Then again, like McLeese wrote, that seems to be Yoakam: devoid of pretence once he’s off stage. An artist determined to connect, regardless of his audience.
It’s that contradiction McLeese alluded to, one that not only dictates the disparity of his style – that of a singing cowboy who somehow found acceptance with the punk rockers and insurgents before scoring points with the country crowds – but also a man who sometimes seems determined to keep the world guessing. The aloof aura that Yoakam exudes onstage couldn’t be more removed than the man with whom one engages in conversation. He’s more than merely talkative; he’s engaging, intelligent, personable, and astute. When I mention my upcoming move to Marysville, TN, Yoakam takes time to offer his thoughts about the destination and even provides lessons on proper Southern pronunciation. Even more amazingly, despite a full day of press and the publicist’s warning about holding to a time limit, the interview lasts more than an hour and a half, mainly becuase Yoakam has a keen desire to express himself.
“I feel from time to time that I’ve changed,” he admits, displaying his typically unbridled honesty. “Ignore the man behind the curtain.”
Three years ago, Yoakam burst back onto the scene with 3 Pears. The disc came seven years after his last album of original material, and marked his return to Warner Brothers following a stint on New West Records, as well as other one-off independent affiliations. It also set the stage for a resurgence of sorts. Critics hailed 3 Pears as a return to form, with Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic declaring it to be “as fresh as any music he’s ever made, and one of his very best albums.
“Yoakam,” he continues, “has decided to delve deeply into the spirit of the ’60s, looking beyond Bakersfield and adding some serious swatches of pop color throughout the album. Certainly, this is steeped in the thick twang that’s been at the heart of Yoakam‘s music since the start, but he’s attempting more sounds and styles here than at any time since 1993’s This Time. This is an album where one song in no way predicts what comes next. Yoakam has surprised by digging deeper into every one of his obsessions, creating a record that captures the careening, adventurous spirit of the ’60s without ever feeling doggedly retro.”
Barnes Newberry, who hosts the popular Americana program “My Back Pages” on mvyradio.com, further expounds on the difficulty of trying to peg Yoakam with any particular style. “Is he country, honky-tonk, or rock? Dwight Yoakam defies specific categorization. In his early days he called his music ‘hillbilly,’ but he has been almost chameleon-like in that he can cross genres with ease on his many albums and in live concerts. I think a loose tag, such as neo-traditionalist, with a foot in Bakersfield [country] as opposed to Nashville [country] and another in rock might better describe what he is able to do.”
“If that’s the case, it’s gratifying,” Yoakam says in response to those reviews. “I once wrote a song called ‘I Want to Love Again’ and it really wasn’t about romance. It was about music. It said, ‘I want to love again, feel young again, the way I did when it was true.’ It wasn’t about the business of it. It was about the excitement of it, and the inspiration of it.”
For all the retro posturing however, it was Yoakam’s collaboration with Beck, who helped produce a pair tracks on 3 Pears, which turned the most heads. Simply put, Yoakam was back. While his allegiance to classic form was still unwavering, his desire to explore the reinvention that’s so crucial to the changing face of the new Americana was propelled forward as well. To the artist, it’s a stirring and grandiose concept, one that has to do with far more than the music.
“You can have someone like Robert Plant step up and say, ‘I’ve got that in my genes. It’s from the Irish, Scottish, Welsh folk traditions,’” Yokam muses. “There’s a great book called The United States of Appalachia that discusses [how] the culture evolution of the United States is pretty much tied in the micro and the macro version of that mountain chain … Americana is that. It was those people, who against the king’s command, came across the ocean, crossed that mountain range and forged off … and said there’s land we’re going to settle, and [we’re going to] create our own life and our own music. And that’s what Americana music is. It’s its own music. From Bessie Smith and Nina Simone to the Stanley Brothers, who were hard proponents of the Appalachian music and its cultures. Americana is Route 66. It’s that road that took us way out west.”
Second Hand Heart
Yoakam’s new album, Second Hand Heart, continues his career-long transition, finding his present stacked so heavily on his past. Heavily invested in the most pronounced rock rhythms he’s served up in his career, it finds songs such as “She,” “Liar,” and “Dreams of Clay” taking cues from the Stones, Credence Clearwater, and even the Clash.
“The Big Time” offers up blues and boogie while the twang of honky-tonk still rings through “Off Your Mind.” Still, the most surprising song in the set is the one that epitomizes the genuine dichotomy of Yoakam’s posture – that is, his revved up version of the traditional standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” reinvented as a full-tilt rocker.
“There’s a certain immediacy to this album that has something in common with Guitars Cadillacs , Etc. Etc.,” Yoakam suggests. “On this album, you can hear my take on cowpunk, especially on songs like ‘Liar’ and the cover of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ which is kind of like our version of Bill Monroe meets the Ramones. I told the band, ‘let’s do our version of Ramones/Clash – let’s jack it up like we’re drinking moonshine on a ridge top in a Chevelle SS.’ ‘Even Believe’ and ‘She’ also have that that kind of recklessness.
I don’t choose the songs,” Yoakam adds. “They choose me. That’s what it felt like with this record. They kind of call on me. All I know is, knock wood, I need to be grateful. And really, really appreciative to have to opportunity to do the music I want to make.”
The kinds of songs that have found him may shift in style depending on circumstance, but one thing is clear: Yoakam’s ability to push at the parameters, to reinterpret the sound of classic country and make it palatable for a rock and roll audience has contributed to both its growth and its broader definition. Americana might still have prospered if Yoakam never came along, but it’s doubtful that it would have embraced such a broad reach. Yoakam remains fully aware of his contribution to the process but he’s also well aware of the bigger picture.
Americana music, he explains, “is a reckless abandonment and a wonderfully elegant musical journey. The term is rightly applied. It is what America can be. It’s about imagination and ambition, and a gaze towards the unknown that takes you right to the edge of disaster at times, but ultimately leads to a brand new world of discovery. The thing about Americana that [its musicians] have in common is our independence. The irony is what we have in common, as I heard Billy Joe Shaver say a couple of weeks ago, ‘What we all have in common is our differences.’ What a genius, brilliant kind of comment. That truly is Americana. Whether it’s Old Crow Medicine Show or the Black Keys, they all kind of meander through the Americana camp. We all wander out through the wilderness and come back to camp occasionally.”
Yoakam has reason to be grateful, not only for the fact that he was welcomed back to the camp, but that he was allowed to find his own way in and out of it. He clearly finds it gratifying. “No matter who it was,” he says, “my manager, my record company, my fans – they always left me to my own devices, and I had fun doing it. That’s all I can ask for.”