Let ‘er Buck: Dwight Yoakam keeps the faith
August 29, 2008
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” I could have predicted the pause in the conversation, after I asked Dwight Yoakam if he took his acting seriously. Following that moment of silence, Yoakam informed me, with patient but dramatic gravity, “I’m very serious about it.”
It was obvious, of course, that the country-singer-turned-actor took more than a passing interest in his second career. As a younger man, Yoakam, now 51, appeared in plays at his Columbus, Ohio, high school. His entrance into professional acting involved an element of haphazard chance: Filmmaker John Dahl was supposed to make a music video for Yoakam, and when that project was scuttled, Dahl instead hired the singer to appear in his stylish, country-noir, “Red Rock West.” Yoakam appeared as a truck driver in the 1992 film, earning his first film credit; he also contributed the closing song, “Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” which would turn up on several collections of Yoakam’s greatest hits.
He made maximum use of that opportunity. Yoakam studied acting, and took parts in all kinds of films: the high-profile comedy “Wedding Crashers,” big-budget thrillers “Panic Room” and “Crank,” and the romantic comedy “Four Christmases,” to be released in November. Perhaps not surprisingly, Yoakam has most distinguished himself in a pair of movies with a gritty, country sensibility: Billy Bob Thornton’s 1996 hit “Sling Blade,” in which Yoakam nailed the part of the bullying villain, Doyle; and as a West Texas sheriff in 2005’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones. The online magazine Salon noted that Yoakam’s work in the former featured “a tremendous amount of redneck confusion and glee.”
Apart from that impressive filmography, it should have been obvious for another reason that Yoakam has taken on acting with serious intentions. For the previous 20 minutes or so, Yoakam had been talking about country music, and revealing a scholarly knowledge on the subject ” differences between East Coast and West Coast styles, and how they came to be; the influence of rock ‘n’ roll. Clearly, Yoakam was not someone who merely flirted with his artistic endeavors.
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Yoakam’s own history in country music starts in earnest in Nashville. In the mid-’70s, having dropped out of Ohio State, he went to Music City to audition for a role at Opryland theme park (home of the Grand Ole Opry after its move from the historic Ryman Auditorium in 1974), where young unknowns sang on outdoor stages. Yoakam was offered a job as an alternate. Instead of accepting the entry-level job in Nashville, Yoakam headed to Southern California.
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As consolation prizes go, it was a good one, one that fit well. For 25 years, Yoakam has made his home in Los Angeles, far from the often constraining, conservative, overly commercial influences of Nashville. Interestingly, from Los Angeles, he has been able to make country music that is considered a purist’s delight; at the same time, he has had enormous popular success, landing more than 30 songs on the charts and earning followings both within and outside of the country mainstream.
“All my life turned out fine,” said Yoakam, who makes his Jazz Aspen Snowmass debut with an appearance at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village. “I came to the West Coast and this became my adopted home. It’s where I began to discover what I wanted to say musically in a more clear fashion than I would have probably been able to in Nashville. The things that went on out here were outside the mainstream, and it allowed me to evolve in a different way.”
One direction that Los Angeles allowed Yoakam to develop was as a live act. Yoakam says that Nashville was always more geared toward recording than performing, whereas L.A. had a thriving club scene. He gravitated toward the Palomino, in North Hollywood, where he appeared at open-mic nights. It was through the connections made at the Palomino that Yoakam put together his band.
Perhaps even more significant was the particular strain of country music that came out of California. The boundaries in Los Angeles were far looser than those back in Tennessee, and the cross-breeding of rock and pop influences with country were encouraged, rather than frowned upon.
“At the time, I was very drawn to the beacon that Emmylou Harris was acting as ” in 1976, ’77,” said Yoakam. “There was a still flourishing country-rock music scene. The Eagles were at the pinnacle of their success, and Emmylou had her Hot Band and was basing it out of Southern California. That drew me to the West Coast.
“And there was a great tradition of country music that kept me here. Even Johnny Cash lived out here.”
And it practically goes without saying that Buck Owens lived out there. Born in Texas at the tail end of the ’20s, Owens was part of the Dust Bowl culture that found heartland farmers moving westward. Owens eventually settled in Bakersfield, the Central Valley city some 100 miles north of L.A. from which he launched a stripped down, gritty brand of country that would take the name of Owens’ adopted hometown.
Yoakam came to know the Bakersfield sound as a kid ” along with bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll, Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton and Chet Atkins. But Yoakam heard Owens in a different way than the others. Owens had crossover hits with songs that he recorded specifically for pop radio ” “Tiger By the Tail,” “Act Naturally” ” that had a special appeal.
“So I heard Buck really on pop radio first, then listened to the stuff on country radio later,” said Yoakam. “‘Under Your Spell Again’ ” that had a magic to it.”
As Yoakam listened more, and got drawn further into the country music realm, he developed an ear for the nuances that created the Bakersfield sound. On the West Coast, country singers adopted the rock ‘n’ roll practice of using the same band both onstage and in the studio. He learned how Owens often removed fiddle and steel guitar from his country records, and added electric guitar, to make more of a pop and rock sound. Yoakam can connect the dots between Hank Williams Sr.’s impact on the West Coast style, and how the particular habits of Chet Atkins led to the emergence of the Everly Brothers.
Yoakam was happy to cast his lot with the California methods, and the resulting sounds.
“The West Coast element is what drew me here ” there was a slightly more raw sound. More affinity for rock ‘n’ roll,” said Yoakam. “Once I got on the West Coast, the natural thing was using the band you used in the studio onstage, and it brought out a visceral quality. That’s what Buck’s records had, that Nashville records didn’t carry over into the ’60s. It was there in the ’50s, with Hank Sr.’s albums. But it got lost.
“The West Coast had more of that jet-age interpretation of that. A more migratory, John Steinbeck expression of that. You have, with Buck Owens, the godfather of country-rock, because what he was doing in a honky-tonk musical setting were the things that converted traditional country music to the rock ‘n’ roll generation. The Nashville sound had become more produced, in a pop sense, and less accessible to a rock audience.”
Yoakam had his direct connections to that history. He recorded the loving tribute “Streets of Bakersfield” with Owens; the duet was a 1988 hit, and is the opening track on Owens’ “21 No. 1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection.” When the two appeared together, they often sang “Under Your Spell Again.”
But Yoakam never went the obvious route, and made his own full-CD tribute to Owens. “I never felt it was my right to usurp ownership,” he said. “I didn’t consider covering his songs while he was alive, because he was performing them so well, until the weekend he died (in March 2006). It didn’t seem appropriate to do his material.”
After Owens died, Yoakam figured the proper way to honor his hero was by working up a handful of Owens’ songs. “But only for the remainder of that tour, for those few weeks,” he said. Once he got started, however, he felt the specter of Owens tapping him on the shoulder. Last year saw the release of “Dwight Sings Buck.”
The album shows how Yoakam is practically the inevitable vessel in which Owens’ songs would live on. It also demonstrates how Yoakam is the next step in a venerable strain of music that has more to do with California, rock ‘n’ roll and electric guitars than Nashville, country and fiddles.
In April, Yoakam appeared at the Coachella festival in Indio, some 75 miles east of Los Angeles. The lineup was fairly forward-looking, featuring the Raconteurs, My Morning Jacket, Portishead and Kraftwerk. The festival is eclectic, with rock, electronica, folk and more. But it is most certainly not an event that would draw many country music fans. Still, Yoakam felt at home on the bill which, apart from the headliners, relied heavily on regional talent.
“I was born of California music,” he said. “It was like playing in my backyard. I’m just a West Coast musical act. It just felt like reconnecting with another element of my audience.”