Dwight Yoakam: Route 23 Came West, Too

Dwight Yoakam is sitting on a blue yard-sale sofa in his publicist’s office in Los Angeles. It’s fall 2000, and he’s rolling interviews today — hatless for print media, hatted for TV cameras. With a bare-headed hour ahead of him now, he sets his iced tea on a coffee table and leans forward, resting his forearms on two boney, denimed knees.

He has been asked to start by talking about the state of his relationship with his main musical mentor, and he is happy to oblige. The fact is, that relationship has recently reached a new plateau, and Yoakam can readily pinpoint the occasion that took it there. It was the last day of 1999, and the day was dissolving into a glorious, gray-purple swirl on the western horizon.

But Yoakam’s attention was focused elsewhere. At the time, he was kicking back in the lavishly upholstered owner’s suite at the Crystal Palace dinner club in Bakersfield, Calif. Seated across from Yoakam, guitar at his side, was Buck Owens , the club’s resident legend. In three hours or so, they’d be performing together in what had been advertised as the Palace’s Millennium Eve show.

Maybe it was the arrival of that much-anticipated chronological milestone, four new digits on the Gregorian calendar. Maybe it was the realization that Yoakam’s host and musical mentor had turned 70 just four months before. Whatever it might have been, Owens must have sensed it too, because this time, when Yoakam suggested a songwriting collaboration, the head Buckaroo grabbed his guitar. Until that moment, Owens had always rejected such an idea. “You’re not old enough,” he would tell Yoakam. “I got underwear older’n you.” Not this time. “Well,” Owens admitted. “I got this thing in my head.”

“And he started that melody,” Yoakam says, “just the first couple of chords in the melody for what became ‘The Sad Side of Town.’ … And then he said, ‘I got another idea here, too.’ I said, ‘Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-NO, I don’t want to hear anything else. That. Let’s write that.’ ”

They mapped out the first few changes, established a mood and a general direction, then turned their attention to the show they were about to play. About two months later, Yoakam drove north again from his home in Los Angeles, and the two sat down in Bakersfield to pick up where they’d left off. Yoakam, who collects titles and random lyrics in search of songs they might one day fit, offered up “The Sad Side of Town.” Owens liked the sound of it.

In the spring of 2000, Yoakam and his longtime producer-guitarist, Pete Anderson, cut the basic track for “Sad Side” and invited Owens down to L.A. to add his own harmony. Eventually, Owens also sang lead vocals on the CD’s two “bonus Bucks,” as Yoakam dubbed them: the giddy Tex-Mex romp “Alright, I’m Wrong,” written by Anderson and alt-country singer-songwriter Cisco, and featuring the norteño accordionist Flaco Jiminez; and “I Was There,” a country gospel piece evocative of the old Sunday morning classic, “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” Anderson later told Owens, “Every now and then, we do an album of Dwight Yoakam imitating Buck Owens imitating Dwight Yoakam imitating Buck Owens. This is the best one we’ve done yet.”

Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, Yoakam’s 14th CD, was released last fall. The record is vintage Dwight: mostly upbeat, with a shamelessly pervasive twang and wisps of the mystery and danger that have always been hallmarks of his best work. But the three collaborations with Owens — the first since their 1989 duet on Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield” — help set this effort apart. They certainly stand out for Yoakam, who still fondly recalls the day he and Anderson first allowed Owens to listen to what they’d done with “Sad Side.”

“I told [Buck], ‘Now, I hope this sounds like what I want it to sound like to you,’” Yoakam says. “I hope this echoes ‘Crying Time’ and ‘Together Again,’ maybe. And when he heard that first bit of steel and the start of that first verse, he looked at me and said, ‘It could be a cousin to it.’ … And every night I tell the audience, I’m as proud of that song as anything I’ve ever written because I shared that with Buck. … We paid tribute to their sound on that record. It’s that sound that made me want to do country music.”

Yoakam doesn’t hold Owens in such high esteem merely because he grew up listening to his music amid the stew of rock, pop, R&B and country that dominated AM radio (and Yoakam’s diverse, adolescent record collection) in those days. Yoakam identifies with Owens’ route to success too — literally, the physical and emotional journey from old home to new, the preservation of the culture, the sustaining pride in his people.

“I’m a migrant to this state [California], to this part of the country,” Yoakam says, “not unlike Buck’s family was, in the Dust Bowl [migration] from Texas, west to Mesa, Ariz., and then . . . California and Bakersfield. Like Merle Haggard’s family was. … I had an affinity to the Bakersfield musical community in terms of cultural experience.”

When he was a year old, Yoakam’s family moved from the coal mines of Appalachia to the factory region of the upper Midwest — from Pikeville, Ky., to Columbus, Ohio. He remembers riding those 90 miles with his family along Route 23 on holidays and occasional weekends, back into Floyd County, Ky., to visit his coal miner grandfather, Luther Tibbs. “We were taillight babies,” he says. “On weekends there were Michigan and Ohio license plates lined up going down Route 23 … crossing [the Ohio River] at Ironton, Ohio, and Ashland, Ky., to visit family — going home, as my mom called it. And I remember sitting on my gramp’s porch in the holler with that guitar of mine, my ear to it.

“I say, ‘I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio and grew up in California.’ Like Buck, I matured into adulthood here.” And like Owens and Haggard, Yoakam jousted with the Nashville establishment early in his career. “We recorded here [in Hollywood], unlike artists who lived in Texas or other places [who still] recorded in Nashville. We were viewed as outsiders because literally in fact we were,” Yoakam says, adding with a sheepish grin, “but we didn’t mean it.”

Yoakam admits that he got himself into trouble with the Nashville establishment, perhaps unnecessarily. “Over the years, Nashville came to realize that my naive candor early on — which created some animosity on the part of some folks — was just that, naive,” Yoakam says. “I was naive enough to be overly candid about my thoughts and observations on the industry. I learned a couple albums in … that my opinions and observations on the industry were not pertinent to what I needed to do as an artist, so I just really began to focus solely on what I was doing at the time. And I quit ever trying to second-guess what the industry was going to do, or what radio wanted or needed, and/or what the taste of the public would be, as fickle as it can be at any given time.”

Early on, Yoakam seemed to be rejecting Nashville not only with his words but with his choices as well. “I went to Nashville for a brief time,” he says, “and I realized that 1976-1977 Nashville was not really an environment that was going to be conducive to what I needed to do to grow into who I was going to be. I came west, young man, I came west. [But] I wasn’t necessarily real clear on what I was going to be. I had an instinct about what this music could still be and what I could maybe do with hillbilly music.

“In 1977 there were still echoes of Merle and Buck [in California]. I knew they recorded on the West Coast, and Emmylou Harris was still … being a profoundly pertinent voice for country music. She drew me here along with the legacy that Buck and Merle had delivered to her.

“The [musical breakthroughs of] the late ’60s, early ’70s, that had given birth to country rock — Gram Parsons and the Byrds, leading to the [Flying] Burrito Brothers, leading to Emmylou Harris, and leading to Linda Ronstadt, and leading to the Eagles, and everything in between — just drew me here.”

The L.A. punk scene of those early days — including the bands X and the Violent Femmes, to name two that crossed paths with Yoakam — didn’t rub off on him so much as it reinforced the extended kinship he recognized between primal hillbilly and primal punk.

“You go back to pure, traditional country music, you go back to mountain music, you go back to the Louvin Brothers doing ‘Knoxville Girl,’ … [and you find] an emotional abandon … that then gave birth to honky-tonk music and … always had an affinity to rock ‘n’ roll. Look, it’s one of the parents of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the child reawakening the parent.

“That rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic came, in part, vis-à-vis the early
hillbilly aesthetic. They were the outsiders. They were the outcasts. They were not of culture and of society’s musical taste.”

That devotion and passion for his hillbilly heritage has prompted Yoakam to take an active role in promoting its music. He praises the Country Music Association for the support it has shown, at various times, to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (In 1961, the CMA created the Hall of Fame honor, and the CMA made a substantial donation to the building of the new facility in downtown Nashville.) Yoakam also sits on the board of the Mountain Arts Center of Prestonsburg, Ky.

Those organizations, he says, “play a key role in … continuing to stimulate not only an awareness of country music, and its continuing pertinence and validity, but an interest in it, an enthusiasm for it, in young people — if we all continue to support them.”

There may or may not be irony in the fact that the CMA has failed to give Yoakam any honorary hardware. He has won two Grammy Awards and one award from the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music but no awards from the Nashville-based CMA.

The oversight appears not to have fazed Yoakam in the least. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten 15 or 16 Grammy nominations, and we’ve sold 18 million records. Hey … knock on wood,” Yoakam says, who, now sprawled across the sofa, reaches out to rap on a fiberboard door. “The rest is icing on the cake.

“Awards from organizations that are driven by the industry and peer-oriented like the Grammys are enormously gratifying. There was a time when I sat at home watching the Grammys wishing I could just be in the same company as people who made records. … I have no complaints. It comes as it comes.”

One thing is certain — he’ll never dumb down, or pop up, his music to satisfy the tastes of radio program directors. He’s in it for himself, in the musical sense. But his approach is not purely a matter of principle.

“You can’t predict when your moment and an audience’s moment may intersect,” Yoakam says. “Jim Ed Norman, who is president of Warner-Reprise Nashville, said to me a couple years ago after the large success of This Time, he said, ‘You know, as an artist you still just have to sail your course and set your compass heading and maintain it, and allow the sea to rise to meet you. You can’t force the bow of the boat down into the sea, or you’ll risk a shipwreck.’

“I thought that was an astute observation, and I agree,” Yoakam says. “He was encouraging me to maintain the course headings that were instinctive in me. … and [he was] probably realizing that we wouldn’t always have a This Time moment with every album. He was expressing that he was willing to stay the course with me on every album.”

Yoakam is fortunate to have received that type of advice almost from day one. “Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, who headed Warner Burbank for years [and are now with DreamWorks] saw us play at the Roxy [in Los Angeles] one night, after the song ‘Honky Tonk Man’ was just out,” Yoakam recalls. “Lenny called me the next day and he said, ‘You know, you’re gonna hear a lot of things from a lot of people over the next few years about your music and what you should do and shouldn’t do. I wanna tell you, please remember: Don’t listen to any of it.’ ”

Yoakam has stuck with that advice, too, “much to the chagrin of Buck at times,” he says. “But Buck knows Buck didn’t listen to anybody but himself [either] and he knows that if we have an affinity to one another, it lies therein.

“And you know what? I’ll always be in his debt for his friendship to me, and even though he didn’t always understand, and still may not always understand why Dwight does what Dwight’s doing … He understood that I had to walk my own path. He understood it because he had journeyed down his own road also.”

This story appeared first in the Journal of Country Music, the magazine of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Robert Price is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian. His first JCM
article on California country music appeared in 1998. He grew up all over the place but came of age in Sonoma County, Calif., and therefore claims it as home.