The Man Under the Hat
Dwight Yoakam is all about the hat — and those practically “painted on,” worn-in-the-right-places blue jeans. Sometimes the hat hides a man of mystery, sometimes it reveals a man who bares his soul in his work.
The hat has become part and parcel of who he is. It is his signature look, that Stetson set low over his brow, turned up on the sides. It’s also symbolic of the many hats he wears when it comes to the parts he plays in his life and in his career no matter whether he’s on the stage, on the silver screen, in the studio, or when he’s walking on the “streets of Bakersfield.”
Yoakam is always thinking about his next project, his next move. And maybe because it takes a character to create a character — explains how he’s as much a successful actor as he is a country music pioneer.
Either way, Yoakam delivers a song with his heart ever present in the cry in his voice or the emotion beyond what a scene might call for —Yoakam has never done anything half-assed.
Yoakam knows a lot about keeping his truth front and center and never losing sight of his dreams. When he started out, “no” became a very familiar, word.
Being an outsider came naturally to Yoakam. When he first set boots in Nashville in the mid-’80s he had so many doors slammed in his face, and was told so many times he was “too country” to make it, you wouldn’t have blamed him if he chucked it all in and flipped burgers in Fresno.
But what made Yoakam unique was his ability to sing and craft songs with the ghosts of heroes like Hank, Marty and Elvis guiding the pen — and Buck and Merle influencing the direction. This same uniqueness made him determined. If Nashville wouldn’t have him, then he wouldn’t have Nashville. So Yoakam headed to where his kind of music would be appreciated. He headed to California, near the cradle of the Buck Owens and Merle Haggard sound — Bakersfield, California. The “streets of Bakersfield” were more accommodating than those of Music Row.
So he took his influences and sifted through them to create a sound and blend of country and rock that came up with something new and different. The result is than 25 million albums sold worldwide, 12 gold albums and nine platinum or multi-platinum albums, including the triple platinum “This Time.” Five of those albums have topped Billboard’s country albums chart with another seven landing in the Top 10. He’s won two Grammys and earned a staggering 21 nominations.
His most recent album project “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars,” tips a hat to one of Yoakam’s first loves, bluegrass. While the genre was reflected in moments throughout his career, from “Miner’s Prayer” on his first album more than 30 years ago, to a collaboration with Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, he hadn’t really ever thought of doing a whole bluegrass album. If you listened hard, you could even hear that strain of mountain music in the melodies and harmonic sense of his most rocked-out country hits.
While he wasn’t consciously thinking about busting out the mandolins it was always within him.
“Melodically, it’s just part of my nature,” Yoakam said, “part of the birthright, I guess, in my DNA.”
Released in 2016, the same year he celebrated the 30th anniversary of “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.,” “Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars” is in the same vein as that landmark debut beyond the cheeky title. However the album looks farther back by dusting off some of Yoakam’s most classic songs and reworking them in a style that not only predates “cowpunk” but also his beloved Bakersfield sound.
Yoakam even remakes “Guitars, Cadillacs” in the style of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” No one is ever going to mistake a star so renowned for favoring snug jeans with a Soggy Bottom Boy, but here, he clinches his status as at least an honorary Clinch Mountain lad.
“Chris Lord-Alge, who has mixed my last two studio albums, entered the picture in L.A. and agreed to add a further edge of Beggars Banquet-esque rock and roll mystique, completing the journey with a masterfully unique sonic framing of the entire project,” Yoakam said.
“It was part of Alison Krauss’ Union Station band colliding with the remnants of the Soggy Bottom band,” said Yoakam, of the four days of band tracking he did in Nashville with a group of acoustic all-stars he’d never worked with before.
“Then I threw, I guess, a hillbilly version of the Beach Boys at it with my harmony vocals. That core bunch of players there in Nashville for those four days was a really fortuitous vortex, with those guys responding to what I wanted to do and me saying, ‘Look, let’s leave it loose and ragged at times.’ Rock and roll got some of its swagger from bluegrass. Let’s go back there and show some of that swagger if we can.”
The original idea was to make it a covers album, before it ended up being an album of Dwight Yoakam covers, with one notable exception — a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
“When Gary (Paczosa) and JR (Randall) came to do a meeting with me, they said, ‘You know, we started listening to your catalog, and we found songs where we thought, wow, that was never a single. Nobody ever heard that. Should we do that with him?’ I let them come to me with titles that they liked,” Yoakam said. “I didn’t really pick; they did. And we ended up with 11 tracks that had been on my earlier albums, but only two of them, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ and ‘Please, Please Baby,’ were ever hits. Only one other song had even been a single, ‘These Arms,’ and it didn’t crack the top 30. So I don’t know if ‘obscure’ is the word for these songs — people that had my albums have come across them — but they’re the tracks that were songs less traveled.
“The bluegrass influence has always kind of been, as Glenn Frey would say, whispering in my other ear,” Yoakam said.
In one sense, Yoakam wanted to be as faithful to the original traditions as possible, and in another, to mess with them a little.
“I was very strident about exacting a colloquial expression from the guys when they sang along with me,” he said.
“The album’s really a composite of disparate elements that coalesce in this,” he said. “Country-rock was born when Chris Hillman, who was a bluegrass mandolin player, took Clarence White, who came out of hardcore bluegrass, into the Byrds’ circle on the album before Sweethearts of the Rodeo. So there’s this west coast bluegrass contingent that still echoes in my head — that whole sort of Byrds/Beach Boys thing colliding with mountain culture.”
That’s where the title comes in.
“It’s tongue in cheek,” he said, “because the album started in Nashville, and ended up in… well, you know, California is the place you oughta be!”
Yoakam sees a real sense of history in California’s role even in the bluegrass scene.
“I thought, well, I’m gonna give a wink back to everybody, to Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and everybody who came out here. And this album really is that hybrid expression of a journey — and it’s the American journey,” Yoakam said. “It’s the Dust Bowl ’30s era blowing colloquial music out to California with all the Okie/Arkie/Texan migrants. Folks from Kansas and Nebraska and the plains all ended up out here and brought with ’em their cultural elements. Without that, you don’t have Buck Owens out here, and you don’t have Merle Haggard, perhaps, in the way that we knew him.”
And without them, you certainly don’t have the man many consider the reigning king of California country, Dwight Yoakam.
So where does “Purple Rain” fit into that, anyway? It’s the odd song out, certainly, though Yoakam and Prince share something in common as far as having been mentored to some extent by Lenny Waronker at Warner Bros.
“We had finished two days of recording the tracks, and I woke up at the hotel in Nashville and heard the news,” Yoakam said. “I was thinking about him and thinking about how uniquely he impacted the culture, so when I got to the studio and everybody was talking about the shock of it, I said ‘I feel like I want to sing “Purple Rain,”’ because I’ve always felt that was one of the more beautiful melodies. We cut it, and I didn’t think about it again, because I thought the emotion of it just got everybody wanting to express something. I didn’t think it was going to be on the record. Months later, I put it on and realized how those guys really played with their hearts that day. That melody was so simplistically haunting — hopefully we did justice to it.”
Yoakam released two new singles this year — the self-penned “Pretty Horses,” and “Then Here Came Monday,” written by Yoakam and Chris Stapleton.
But his talent isn’t limited to music and hit songs. Helping impart that feeling is the actor/director side of his dance card. He received the Premiere Performance Award for his riveting appearance in the Academy Award-winning film “Sling Blade” and won wide acclaim for his performance in Cannes Film Festival award-winning “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” among many other Hollywood credits including a role in the 2017 film “Logan Lucky,” starring Channing Tatum.
But audiences at the E Center at the Edgewater aren’t going to catch Dwight Yoakam in a sound studio, and they aren’t going to see him on a movie set. They are going to catch his live stage performance, which has been labeled as “transcendent.”
You can easily imagine Buck Owens smiling at his buddy Dwight being called a “genius.” But, then again, Yoakam is indeed cut from a different, tight-fitting cloth than most.