Dwight Yoakam

The Stetson Stays On:
Dwight Yoakam Keeps His Heart In His Music

Nearly 30 years before the roots-based sounds of Chris Stapleton and the Alabama Shakes found mainstream footing alongside pop and hip-hop royalty, Dwight Yoakam began a mainstream run that has both celebrated and advanced California’s legacy of country-influenced music.

Yoakam’s sustained chart success started with 1986’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.  and continued with last April’s Second Hand Heart. He’s had Billboard’s top country album five times and seen 14 singles crack the top ten. Those aren’t exactly George Straight numbers, but it’s an impressive list of accolades for an artist who has stayed true to the country-rock and honky tonk sounds that lured him from Appalachia to the West Coast.

Like Elvis Presley and so many other Deep South pop prodigies, some of Yoakam’s earliest musical memories center on the local church. “I was raised in the Church of Christ, and the sect I was in used no instrumental music in worship,” he says. “I literally sang a cappella Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. These days, I look back at what a profound impact that had on me.” Among the hymns of his youth was “In the Garden,” the song Yoakam performed at Buck Owens’ funeral. The performance follows a tongue-in-cheek apology to his mother for playing an instrument and wearing his trademark Stetson hat in a house of worship.

The Yoakams listened to secular radio on the way to and from church, exposing young Dwight to songwriting inspiration Mike Nesmith and the Monkees, Ricky Nelson’s occasional flirtation with rockabilly, and the numerous ways Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and the rest of the Wrecking Crew introduced country twang to pop music.

Fast-forward to the mid-‘70s, and Yoakam is a college-age man chasing stardom. His life-changing move to West Coast after growing up in rural Kentucky and Ohio was preceded by a brief stay in Nashville. “It wasn’t really very active with live performance,” he says. “It was a writing-driven town. Although I’ve written probably 80 percent of what I’ve done, I wasn’t a writer for hire. It was very personal singer-songwriter expression. That was more what was going on out here (in California).”

Los Angeles had a fresher, modern take on country and western influences that by then had made Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles household names. “The godfather of country-rock, Chris Hillman of the Byrds, became the architect of what would become that generation’s expression of California country music,” he says. “Chris revered Buck and Merle, and of course I love Buck and Merle. Those are the things that drew me to the West Coast.”

Yoakam arrived in Los Angeles in 1977 and pieced together his first live band in ’79. By then, punk rockers had taken local appreciation of throwback sounds in a sonically abrasive direction.  “I landed at an in-between moment before the early ‘80s and what happened with the cow-punk scene, which was bands like the Blasters and Los Lobos,” he explains. “And a lot of former punk bands: the Dils became Rank and File and the Plugz became the Cruzados. It was a new expression for country music.”

I landed at an in-between moment before the early ‘80s and what happened with the cow-punk scene, which was bands like the Blasters and Los Lobos,” he explains. “And a lot of former punk bands: the Dils became Rank and File and the Plugz became the Cruzados. It was a new expression for country music.

The countrification of California punk and the guitar-driven sound of new wave were the happiest of coincidences for Yoakam. “That’s what allowed me to springboard from country hillbilly clubs in the San Fernando Valley to being able to transition into playing with acts like the Meat Puppets or with the alter-ego of X, with John and Exene playing as the Knitters,” he adds.

In 1984, a six-song 12-inch E.P. version of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. was issued by Oak Records. An expanded 10-song LP version was released in 1986 by Reprise and became his first chart-topping album. The LP version opens with “Honky Tonk Man,” the Johnny Horton cover that heralded Yoakam’s mainstream arrival.

Atlanta radio had a role in making the song a hit. “Atlanta was one of the first cities that broke my records back in 1986,” he says. “I think Houston, Texas was technically the first major market that broke ‘Honky Tonk Man.’ Atlanta followed as a close second. So from the beginning, I have a debt of gratitude that I feel toward Georgia audiences.”

It wasn’t just commercial radio DJs that wanted Atlanta to hear Dwight’s early hits. “The Georgia Satellites did us a great service,” he explains. “We heard about this through audiences – it was pre-internet. In 1987, they set a ghetto blaster in front of the stage and played the cassette before they came onstage. It was Georgia boys thinking I was worth listening to before their show.”

Other Atlanta memories from that era include a Center Stage gig during which the bass player stomped so wildly that he broke the heel off one of his cowboy boots. “We had to duct tape it on between the show and the encore,” Yoakam explains. “He had lost his mind on the last song! He was that excited to be in Atlanta playing the music we’d been doing the previous two years in anonymity.”

His next Georgia stops, Wednesday, March 2nd and Friday March 4th at the Georgia Theatre, will be his first appearances in Athens. “I guess that night I can holler about them Dawgs,” he says. “In Atlanta, I have to holler about the Dawgs but have to holler about the Jackets also!” Actually Dwight, a pro-SEC stance is acceptable almost everywhere in the South. Don’t you listen to sports talk radio on the road?

Bad football jokes aside, Yoakam expects yet another groundswell of local support when he debuts in the Classic City. “I’ve never had to explain my music to the audiences in Georgia,” he says. “They got it with a rebel yell from the moment we began playing it. They understood the culture in the music that was born from that part of the American patchwork.”

By 1987, Yoakam’s successes gave him a platform to honor one of his California country heroes. “’I’d dedicated the song ‘Little Ways’ to Buck Owens’ sound on the second album, Hillbilly Deluxe. I did it very specifically because I thought he had not gotten his due for that later part of his career. Due in part because he was dismissed as this guy on Hee-Haw. A lot of my generation of musicians had forgotten what he did in the ‘50s to the middle to late ‘60s. It was really unique to California and game-changing. It really took neo-honky tonk to a new level. That’s what he was doing on those Capitol records.”

That same year, Yoakam met Owens at the Kern County Fair in Bakersfield. The duo first performed future hit “Streets of Bakersfield” the following October at the 1988 CMA Awards. “Our musical lives were intertwined after that,” Yoakam adds. “Still are in a lot of ways.”

Yoakam recounts one Owens story in particular that really captures the culture clashes that occurred in the constantly evolving pop world of the late ‘60s. “Buck played the Fillmore West at the height of Height-Ashbury – ’67 or ’68,” Yoakam explains. “He told me about being handed a cigarette on stage by some guy in the audience. He handed it to Don Rich and said, ‘Wow, that guy just handed me a cigarette.’ Don looked at Buck and said, ‘Chief, that’s not a cigarette. That’s a joint!’ Buck then threw it down.”

Nearly 20 years and several albums and acting gigs later, Yoakam is the legacy act in a shifting country music landscape that’s allowed Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves to find chart success by building on the past instead of following pop trends. This roots-based approach received its strongest validation to date when Stapleton and the blues-inspired Alabama Shakes’ names were called often at the 2016 Grammys. Traditional sounds are prominent at a time when country-rock, or anything that should be called rock, is absent from the mainstream.

Sure, roots-based approaches are hardly new, and they probably won’t stay in the mainstream’s ever-shifting spotlight. For fans of old-time country music, new yet derivative sounds treated as more than just Americana afterthoughts will be a rewarding ride however long it lasts. “I performed last year (at the Grammys) with Brandy Clark in a situation born of that,” he says. “She’d been out working on tour with Eric Church and myself. We met there, they asked if I’d come and sing ‘Hold My Hand’ with her, and we did. It was a wonderful moment to be part of because they allowed us to stand there with two guitars and sing along in the middle of that arena… It’s a positive turn of events, but I don’t think anything stays the same.”

Yoakam has sound advice for current artists chasing the classic sounds that have kept him on the road and in the studio for over three decades. “It’s incumbent upon the individual artists of any generation to seek out the inspiration that not only inspires them but will inspire the people that listen to them,” he says. By harnessing time-tested inspiration, Yoakam and today’s crop of country purists are doing something similar to many of those late ‘70s L.A. punks – creating something that will be cool long after it is popular.

Photo by Emily Joyce.