(Dwight Yoakam will be joined by two of his friends — bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs and actor Dennis Hopper — Thursday (June 5) when his star is unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yoakam will also be profiled in a new episode of CMT Inside Fame debuting Saturday (May 31) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)
Dwight Yoakam is relaxing on his impeccably clean tour bus while he waits for sound check at one of Nashville’s most famous clubs, the Exit/In. It’s the last concert of his Almost Alone tour, an aptly named series of shows considering that Yoakam used no opening acts and traveled with only one sideman to accompany him.
“I’m a having a ball with it,” he says from beneath the hat worn in his low, signature style. His boots, jeans and western shirt complete the ensemble. The rest of his summer tour will include a slightly larger version of this same intimate show. “We’re going to take the concept idea ‘Almost Alone’… but with a band. So it’ll kind of be a throwback to my first touring unit. ‘Almost Alone and Then Some.’”
Yoakam has been touring with this scaled-down production since February. And the dates have allowed him to showcase the 10 new songs from his upcoming album, Population Me. The new disc, his first release in two years, will be in stores June 24.
Smiling as he describes the CD’s first track, Yoakam says, “‘The Late Great Golden State’ was a title so compelling that I couldn’t not chase the song down. That title alone is worth recording.” The song, written by Mike Stinson, has harmony vocals reminiscent of the Eagles and an underlying banjo thread.
“It really encapsulates the whole California music experience and cultural experience. You go all the way back to the Dust Bowl migration of the ‘30s. … Buck Owens’ family moved from north central Texas to Arizona and him on to Bakersfield and Merle [Haggard’s] family from Oklahoma. So that whole kind of American experience is caught in this song in a lot of ways.”
Yoakam can personally identify with the song. He made the same cross-country trek 25 years ago. “That whole ‘go west’ kind of feeling was there [in the song], but it also collides with contemporary reality, sadly, with the state of things economically in California. The kind of late great golden state is the feeling at times, but it always tends to rebound.”
Nestled in the album’s middle is the only cover tune. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “Trains and Boats and Planes” was a 1966 hit for Dionne Warwick.
“We came up with a traditional mountain kind of approach to it,” he says. “And that song in particular took on added poignancy.” Yoakam began performing the song in February as the country was preparing for war with Iraq. Set against such an emotional backdrop, the song took on a more contemporary meaning.
“It was unnerving enough if you were just an American citizen watching this,” Yoakam notes, referring to the relentless media coverage from Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I can only imagine how stressful it must have been for the families. So the song, the last verse especially, just took on such … an almost direct plea. ‘Trains and boats and planes/Took you away/And every time I see them, I pray/And if my prayers can cross the sea/The trains and the boats and the planes will bring you back to me.’
“I thought that, for me, in that moment, politics having nothing to do with anything, just the human experience of that was what the song addressed so thoroughly. And I was very moved by it.”
Willie Nelson lends his vocals on Yoakam’s self-penned ballad “If Teardrops Were Diamonds.” And the result is a psuedo-duet of sorts.
“We don’t sing at the same time, so it’s interesting in that way,” he says. But Yoakam was reluctant to approach the legendary Nelson.
“I’m a huge, huge, huge Willie Nelson fan. He had a profound impact on my life. I was in college when that Red Headed Stranger album hit. So with that kind of respect, I’m not wanting to be the one knocking on doors on the bus.” Laughing, he adds, “Everybody goes knocking on Willie’s door.”
And he’s right. In the past three years alone, Nelson has recorded with Lee Ann Womack, Toby Keith, Trick Pony and Porter Wagoner, among others. But Yoakam’s longtime producer Pete Anderson was convinced the song needed Nelson. “I got a message that they were finding him on the road. And I said, ‘Whoa! I don’t want to impose on Willie when he’s on the road.’” But the joke was on Yoakam. Anderson had found Nelson in San Francisco, and they cut the track as a surprise.
“Willie and I had talked over the years about recording,” Yoakam says. “I’ve toured with him. He’s always been really gracious to me. [He’s] a gentleman and a king.”
“The Back of Your Hand” is Yoakam’s first single off the new disc (and his current video on CMT). Written by fellow actor Gregg Lee Henry, Yoakam found the ballad infectious.
“It’s a song that the more I heard it, the more I wanted to hear it. Because I think it really possesses a true melancholy as opposed to succumbing to any kind of trite sentimentality.” He can’t resist reciting a few lines to illustrate his point. “‘You think you’re lost/Without any place to go/like you need one of those kisses, long and slow/I know at first glance it’s not what it seems/Like you take two sugars with a splash of cream/You take a guess.’ There’s an elegance to how he folded that bridge back into that chorus that I’ll envy forever, as a songwriter. I just wish, ‘Wow! Why didn’t I think of that song?’”
Population Me is Yoakam’s first album on his own label, Electrodisc Records, which will be distributed by Koch International and Nashville-based Audium Records. After 17 years with Warner Bros./Reprise, he was at a virtual crossroads. “We talked to several major labels and there were a couple of offers made and pending,” he says. “And at the end of the day, we just kind of chose on the side of having the flexibility that this might afford us in terms of marketing ideas.” As a result, the music veteran found himself in 21st century terrain: E-commerce programs via the Internet and satellite radio. “There are just a lot of opportunities that weren’t there in 1985 or ’86.”
While he’s excited about reaching his audience in new ways, Yoakam is candid about the label’s future. “It remains to be seen if I expand on Electrodisc as a label for artists other than myself. Or if it is just the label I use to release my own material. But it’s what I’m doing on this album and it’s been a good experience so far. We’re just taking baby steps with it now.”