The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs, or, in cases like these, discuss a classic artist at length.
From Kentucky to Ohio to Los Angeles to Nashville and beyond, Dwight Yoakam has been everywhere, man. And he’s done it all by being one of hillbilly music’s coolest and collected figures.
Born in rural Pikeville, Kentucky and raised in Central Ohio, Yoakam’s first musical loves included the Beatles and Gram Parsons, and he found country music through his parents and from attending church. “My earliest memory, probably at three, four years old, was [being] wedged in that great womb-like squish that you’ll get between your mother and your aunt,” he said in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. “And we were singing at the record player – not with it, but directionally at it. It was in this little den that my aunt had at her house, and it was on a Saturday evening, and I was squished between them. They were singing one of the popular crossover hits of the day, ‘Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On.’ And we, literally, it was just with abandon that I sang with them. We were hollering. It was, ‘Send me the pillow that you dream on, so darling I can dream on it too.’ That’s my first memory.”
While Yoakam left Kentucky at age one, he constantly returned to his grandparents’ home in Floyd County, Kentucky, and found himself immersed with music from Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Johnny Horton, among others. After forming a rockabilly band in high school and later dropping out of college, Yoakam moved to Nashville to try and make it as a singer. He auditioned for the Opryland amusement park, which featured live performances in the summer time, but failed to impress.
Given that Yoakam’s main inspiration came from Bakersfield aficionados like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, his move out West following his failed Nashville experience came as no surprise. Inspired by Emmylou Harris to move to Los Angeles, Yoakam sought to make music on his own terms. He started by working at a loading dock and department store, before once again finding work as a musician.
In the early 1980s, Yoakam was a frequent performer at country haunts like San Fernando Valley’s Palomino and the Old Corral Bar in Lakeview Terrace, which is now demolished, as Dwight Yoakam and the Kentucky Bourbon. But as the ‘80s roared on and the Urban Cowboy movement found itself in style, Yoakam was fired from the Palomino, after refusing to play the polished, soundtrack-ready songs of the current times.
So, he made friends with an unlikely gtoup: punk-rockers. Uncomfortable with how smooth country music was sounding in the late ‘70s, Yoakam took solace in punk clubs that allowed him to be gritty, and opened for acts like the Blasters, Los Lobos, and Gun Club. Plus, given that both punk and country would merge together by the early 1990s to form alt-country – if not always in sound then certainly in spirit – the connection wasn’t so far-fetched. Dwight Yoakam and the Kentucky Bourbon became Dwight Yoakam and the Babylonian Cowboys. As he said to KCET in 2015, “Merle Haggard said that the difference between the country music from Nashville and the country music from the West Coast was that country music in Nashville came from churches, and the country music in the West Coast came from honkytonks and bars.”
Plus, given that punk bands like X leaned twangy anyway, it was an early formation of cowpunk that suited Yoakam just fine. He would later honor that upbringing by recording The Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac,” which, as to be expected, fared poorly on the country charts. He issued an EP in 1985 called Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., bolstered by the success of a Johnny Horton cover called “Honky Tonk Man,” from 1956. And by then, the Urban Cowboy sound was out of style, and Yoakam had attracted a strong grassroots following from young, hip audiences that appreciated the spark and swagger he brought to his music and shows – rock ‘n’ roll swagger, to be exact, fronted by hard-hitting country music.
Actually, make that “hillbilly” music. When he scored a record deal with Warner Music Nashville and prepared to repackage his earlier EP as a full-length debut album, he was told to drop the “hillbilly” moniker, given that it was seen as a derogatory term for the industry. Even though the term was lobbied against him and his family in his childhood as a form of ridicule, Yoakam turned it around to denote his proud musical heritage. He was part of the often-dubbed (but less familiar) “class of ‘86,” which included a new crop of artists who made their own debuts that year. Unlike fellow anti-Nashville icons like Steve Earle or Lyle Lovett, Yoakam found consistent success on the country charts for around a decade through producer Pete Anderson. After his debut album sold more than two million copies, the next album, perhaps to no one’s surprise, was called Hillbilly Deluxe.
Yoakam’s music pulled from tradition yet was sharply modern, and he polished a distinctive visual image before country music videos became an important marketing tool. While making the Hillbilly Deluxe album cover, for instance, he asked Manuel Cuevas, once the head tailor at Nudie Cohn’s shop in Hollywood, to design him a jacket, just as he had for Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, and beyond. And while thoughtful and media-savvy, Yoakam was also outspoken and critical of Nashville, believing that it had turned its back on traditional hillbilly music, and constantly sought to attain his own freedom from the production mills and publishing houses of Music Row. When asked for a response to Johnny Cash’s drop from his record label, Yoakam replied that the “rawness has left country music.” Cash would return the favor, when he named Yoakam as his favorite new country singer.
He also makes a point, in Country: The Music and the Musicians, that country music’s eventual ‘90s boom should have happened much sooner. “I think if SoundScan had been around in ‘86, ‘87, you would have seen Randy Travis have a No. 1 record, maybe with Storms of Life and certainly with Forever and Ever, Amen. It would have been No. 1 for several weeks, probably – I mean, these are albums that sold three, four million copies. And I think I would have had a top 20 album with Guitars, Cadillacs.” He also believed the “transcending nature of the idiom,” meaning country and hillbilly music, would have started earlier, “destroying a lot of stereotypes for the music” that had previously hindered greater success. And a stereotypical hillbilly he most certainly was not. He was well-versed, and said of his 1993 album This Time, “In truth, there’s no such thing as time. Time doesn’t exist. All we have is the chronicling of the calibration of movement. That’s what a watch is. A caliber. It’s a calibrated chronicle.”
Like Johnny Cash, one of Yoakam’s other musical icons fell out of favor with the country music industry by the late ‘80s. Buck Owens hadn’t attained a No. 1 hit since 1972’s “Made in Japan,” and by returning to the summit with Yoakam for 1988’s “The Streets of Bakersfield,” he marked the second longest gap between No. 1 hits since Elvis Presley. Retired by 1980, Owens reemerged in September 1987, after Yoakam appeared unannounced at his office in Bakersfield and persuaded him to perform with him onstage. In January 1988, Owens was asked to perform at the Country Music Association’s 20th anniversary television special, meant to honor the Bakersfield sound he once pioneered. After Merle Haggard said no, Owens asked if he could substitute in Yoakam, and recalled a song from a 1973 album of his that would fit the show perfectly.
True to the song’s hook, its writer, Homer Joy, wrote the song after walking Bakersfield’s streets, looking to pitch songs to Owens. Yoakam thought it would alienate the two even further from Nashville, but Owens predicted the opposite and ended up being correct. A live version of the performance was eventually sent to radio DJs, and after noting its success, Yoakam and Owens recorded a version for the former artist’s Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room album, featuring Flaco Jiménez playing a Tex-Mex California border culture accordion. It was hailed as an outsider’s anthem, and became twenty-first No. 1 hit for Owens and a first for Yoakam.
Certain critics initially marked Yoakam as a mere throwback, but if anything, he became more of an innovator as his career progressed, further alienating him from Nashville while only endearing him to fans. He’d earn one more No. 1 hit, the Civil War lament called “I Sang Dixie,” recounting a vagabond settler’s forlorn death on an old street in Los Angeles. But he’d find his most consistent success from 1993’s This Time, ending a three-year absence since his previous album. He expanded his sound to incorporate rock and pop elements, but kept the country edge at the forefront. Three of its singles went to No. 2 – including the adventurous, experimental “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” and the raucous, driving “Fast As You” – and the album went on to become his biggest success, selling over three million copies. Even Yoakam himself admitted, though, that “Oftentimes we’re not doing country music anymore. But that’s OK. Country music is not where I’ll remain, but it’s a place I’ll always return to.”
By mid-1995, the commercial high from This Time had slightly dwindled. He released his most ambitious projects yet, a live album called Dwight Live and another studio album called Gone, its biggest single “Nothing” an even more experimental cut than any of the This Time singles, but sales and commercial success slipped further. The trend continued with 1997’s Under the Covers, which honored Yoakam’s other musical influences like Roy Orbison and the Rolling Stones that had shaped his most recent work, but found little commercial success.
Yoakam turned to acting in the mid-’90s, first with 1994’s Red Rock West and cable TV’s Roswell, then with Billy Bob Thorton’s 1996 film Slingblade. Around 15 more would follow. And just as his musical recordings slowed in the mid-2000s, he’d reemerge to honor a hero. Buck Owens died on March 25, 2006, and Yoakam honored his memory not only by giving a moving eulogy and performance of “I Come to the Garden Alone,” but also dedicating 2007’s Dwight Sings Buck to his musical icon. At the funeral, he apologized for wearing his cowboy hat in church, but claimed Owens would have wanted it that way. The album, he said, “was the clearest way I could express my love for him and acknowledge the depth of our friendship.” A relationship that was a combination of parent, sibling, and peer had now come full circle.
By 2012, long past the days of his mainstream country heyday, Yoakam returned to his cowpunk roots to record 3 Pears, re-signing with Warner Bros. Nashville after a stint at New West Records and featuring production from Beck. It was his highest-charting album yet, coming in at No. 3 on the charts. Second Hand Heart took it even further, in 2015, with tracks like “Liar,” the title track, and “The Big Time” all featuring a reckless abandonment and vivaciousness of a performer still hungry and restless. It debuted at No. 2 on the charts, and would follow with a bluegrass collection released on Sugar Hill Records, 2016’s Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars.
Today, as just as Buck Owens had been once for him, Yoakam now stands as an icon for individuality in country music, and remains one of its most daring and distinctive artists – one indebted to his influences, but unafraid to chart his own path.