Dwight Yoakam: Country Music, His Way

Dwight Yoakam: Country Music, His Way

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Dwight Yoakam fans are mad. Not at him, of course. They’re frustrated that, five decades into his career, Yoakam has still not been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The internet is teeming with exasperated blog posts on this matter. And they make a good point: few musicians have had a bigger impact on or presence in country music or done more to expand its boundaries.

Born in Kentucky in 1956, Yoakam was raised in Ohio by parents who loved country. His dad gave him a guitar, and by the fourth grade he was starting to write his own songs. Enamored of rockabilly and the rougher honky-tonk and bluegrass end of country, Yoakam started the Greaser Band with high school classmates. They got some traction in the Columbus area, enough to convince Yoakam to drop out of college. Lured by what turned out to be a fake record deal, he headed to Nashville.

That record scam aside, his timing was off: Yoakam was out of step with recent changes. Nashville had gone smooth and sweet, pushing the so-called Nashville Sound exemplified by soothing backing vocals and orchestral strings. Fiddles, banjos, and old-timey barroom pianos were the last thing the industry wanted. Not to mention the aversion to any hint of rock and roll, which Nashville feared would kill off country entirely. Johnny Cash, whom Yoakam greatly admired, was at the forefront of that battle, seeing rock as a natural outgrowth of country.

But young, unknown Yoakam was in no position to buck the Nashville system. He split for Los Angeles in the early 1980s. There he found an unexpected community in the cowpunk scene, where musicians folded elements of country and folk into punk rock. That breaking down of musical barriers inspired him and clearly has continued to do so for his whole career.

Having become friends with guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, Yoakam cut his first EP in 1984, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., with Anderson producing. A ballad like “South of Cincinnati” would have been drowning in orchestration in Nashville at the time, but Anderson and Yoakam’s arrangement sticks to traditional country instruments: pedal steel, strummed acoustic guitar, piano, fiddle, and mandolin.

The success of that EP on California indie radio led to Yoakam signing with Reprise records, which re-released Guitars with added tracks as his debut album in 1986. He had a big hit right away with his cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” which became the first country single to have its music video played on MTV. The album itself was the first of three top-charting records in a row for Yoakam.

The second of those No. 1 albums was Hillbilly Delight, in 1987. The big singles were a cover of Doc Pomus’ “Little Sister” and a Yoakam original, “Please, Please Baby.” The album included two other covers: Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late with Your Kisses” and a song by Alan Rose and Don Helms called “Smoke Along the Track,” which features an appealing, low-key honky-tonk feel.

Yoakam’s success with Reprise landed him a deal with Capitol Records. Hillbilly Delight was followed in 1988 by the extremely successful Capitol release, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. It yielded Yoakam’s first two No. 1 singles: Yoakam’s own “I Sang Dixie” and Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield,” sung as a duet with Buck Owens, who’d had a hit with the song in the 1970s. Yoakam and Buck were close friends. When Owens died in 2006, Yoakam made a tribute album to him, Dwight Sings Buck.

In interviews, Yoakam has described his first three albums as a trilogy that let him work through the music he grew up with. He changed tack for If There Was a Way (1990), branching beyond his trad country and rockabilly comfort zone. It was also had more of a collaborative nature, featuring songs co-written by hitmaker Kostas and country star Roger Miller, plus duets with Miller and Patty Loveless.

The arrangement on “Dangerous Man” is strongly influenced by 1980s Southern rock, with solo electric guitar work in no way related to Nashville.

Kostas continued to work with Yoakam, co-writing the album This Time in 1993. Yoakam continued to expand his musical horizons, incorporating elements of R&B and Tejano music. Some critics at the time reported hearing influence from punk, which isn’t so surprising when one remembers Yoakam’s early association with the Los Angeles cowpunk scene. His sales, however, showed that he was stretching too far for the industry’s comfort.

So, he (and Anderson) returned to Reprise. Like many multifaceted artists, Yoakam has a consistent history of choosing interesting songs to cover. And as his musical tastes expanded, so did his courage for taking on unexpected material. Under the Covers 1997 was the first of several all-covers albums, and it’s fun to see what made the cut and wonder what else he tried.

Several of the tracks are classics of British rock groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The most surprising choice and transformation is the Clash song “Train in Vain.” To make it even more unrecognizable, Yoakam invited bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to play banjo and sing background vocals! It’s hard to believe this was ever punk.

In 2005 Yoakam braved another change, making his first studio album without Pete Anderson, who ended their association over a legal dispute. Yoakam produced Blame the Vain himself and wrote all the songs. For a label that would let him have control of his work, he turned to New West, founded in 1998 by Warner/Chappell Records CEO Cameron Strang specifically to assist musicians who wanted to operate outside the demands of the mainstream industry.

Yoakam’s most recent studio album is Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars (2016), featuring old-school bluegrass arrangements of older Yoakam songs. A special treat is his reimagining of “Purple Rain,” recorded when he heard the news that Prince had died. It’s remarkably effective as a bluegrass tune. Apparently, a good heartbreak lyric spans all genres.

Yoakam is also an actor, with over 40 film and TV credits. He even got a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his role in Sling Blade in 1996. Most recently he appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho. He has contributed individual songs to several soundtracks and created a complete film score in 2000 for South of Heaven, West of Hell, which he also wrote, starred in, and directed. Add movies to the list of areas where Yoakam’s music has had an impact.

To sum it all up, Dwight Yoakam has been a major force in developing and expanding country music since the 1980s. Let’s get this man into the Hall of Fame.

Header image courtesy of Sacks & Co./Emily Joyce.

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