Dwight Yoakam Follows His Rock and Roll Heart on His Brand-New Album

November 4th, 2015

This is an excerpt from the all-new NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood’s revealing 1965 diary, David Gilmour’s new album, Joe Bonamassa sharing his vintage guitar collection with five lucky fans, rare photos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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SONIC ROOTS: Dwight Yoakam has never blended in with contemporary country’s trends, but he’s always had a rock and roll heart.
By Joe Bosso | Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Over the years, Dwight Yoakam has penned songs with an interesting and varied assortment of collaborators—Kostas, Roger Miller, Holly Lamar, Buck Owens, Mick Jagger, Billy Gibbons, and Ashley Monroe. But his 
most intriguing and enduring songwriting partnership has been with an artist who never fails to blow his mind whenever and wherever they get together. And that co-writer just so happens 
to be…Dwight Yoakam.

“The process I have is a little like co-writing with myself,” Yoakam explains. “I tend to put bits of songs away for weeks and months at a time. After a while, I’ll come back to my ideas and riffs and everything will sound new and different to me. Whether it’s a stream of consciousness or if it’s a real verse and a chorus, it’s like I’m hearing what somebody else wrote and I can add to it in a fresh way. Plus, with a little distance, you can be really objective: ‘Hey, that still sounds cool. That’s even better than I thought.’”

Yoakam began his fragmented approach to writing by necessity, in 1997. The sometime actor was shooting The Newton Boys for director Richard Linklater. At the same time, he was supposed to be working on material for his next album, 1998’s A Long Way Home. “I realized that I wouldn’t have a month straight to write before hitting the studio,” he recalls. “So I decided to get out a Sony Flat Mic [boundary effect] recorder and capture what I could. It was very freeing, actually, and I’ve kept at it. Like they say, ‘You have your whole life to write your first record and six months to write the second.’ But who says that six months can’t be, you know, different?”

Being different has always seemed to come easily for the 58-year-old maverick entertainer. Although Yoakam has long favored the cowboy boots, Nudie suits, rhinestones, and Stetsons that are considered de rigueur for Music Row “hat acts,” his music sits in a thrilling and unusual zone that defies categorization, spreading the waters of rockabilly, hillbilly, garage rock, honky-tonk, and Bakersfield country, while helping to define various and sundry subgenres like outlaw and alt-country. “It’s hardcore country music,’” he used to tell indifferent Los Angeles club owners in the late Seventies who wanted Top-20 hits. “It was the ‘urban cowboy’ thing back then, and I was playing my own stuff and Bill Monroe songs. The joke was that I got fired from more places than hired me.”

Yoakam was born in Kentucky but raised in Ohio. He moved to Los Angeles in 1978 after an unsuccessful stint as a songwriter in Nashville. While hustling gigs around L.A., he played shows and rubbed shoulders with many of the up-and-coming West Coast punk bands of the day, some of whom morphed into country groups. “It was the beginning of the cow-punk movement,” he remembers. “Things were changing—the Plugz became Los Cruzados, the Dils became Rank and File. We shared the same kind of emotional intensity, but I was on the outside of what they were doing musically. I was playing Jimmie Rodgers and ‘Mule Skinner Blues,’ things like that.”

These days, Yoakam has even less in common with the likes of current country chart-toppers Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and other such advocates of “bro country.” You’ll find no songs about trucks, beer, girls in daisy dukes, and tail gaiting in the moonlight in his repertoire. “Those are ‘list-type’ songs,” Yoakam calls them. “‘I got this, she’s got this, we had that.’ People emulate success—it happens. When ‘The Twist’ came out, there was a plethora of dance songs—‘Do the Mashed Potato,’ ‘Limbo Rock.’ And after ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.,’ you had ‘story songs.’ So there is precedent, but I’ve always wanted to achieve success that wasn’t dependent on somebody else or a collective kind of moment. It’s just my way.”

Yoakam says that his aggressive, guitar-heavy new album, Second Hand Heart, is part of a trilogy, but he isn’t sure whether that thread started with 2012’s 3 Pears (which featured a couple of tracks produced by Beck) or back in 2005, when he released Blame the Vain, his first record after his split with longtime producer and guitarist Pete Anderson. One thing’s for certain: The new set is an unqualified delight, with Yoakam merrily tracing the lines of his sonic roots, from the Beach Boys (check out his dreamy falsetto in “In Another World”) to the Beatles (revel in the gorgeous intertwined vocals on “She” or the Ringo-like splashy hi-hat on “Liar”) to Elvis (swivel your hips to the Sun Records-tinged rockabilly gem “The Big Time”).

One of Yoakam’s biggest influences is Buck Owens. In 2007, he paid tribute to the late musician on the covers album Dwight Sings Buck, and almost two decades earlier in 1988 the two teamed up for a spirited reading of Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield.” On Second Hand Heart, Dwight offers the Buckaroos bandleader an affectionate tip of the hat on the stripped-down, twangy-guitar winner “Off Your Mind.”

What comes as a surprise, though, is that Yoakam seems genuinely surprised at such references. “Paying homage was totally unconscious,” he notes. Pausing thoughtfully, he reconsiders somewhat. “The Byrds—the great L.A.-California Country-American Beatles—were dancing through my head at various times,” he allows. “A riff might start with a nod to the Byrds, or it could even be the Hollies, but by the bridge you’re hearing elements of the Beach Boys. [Album executive producer] Lenny Waronker and I talked about that a lot, the impact of listening to the AM car radio as a kid. It’s a mysterious thing.”

Yoakam has made some records in hurry, but he took his time with Second Hand Heart, spacing tracking sessions with his road band and co-producer Chris Lord-Alge over a year-and-a-half period. With each new batch of songs, he returned to one of his favorite studios in the world: Hollywood’s famed Studio B in the Capitol Records building—a place he calls “a gift.” “The room is honest,” he observes. “In terms of its sonic collaboration with you, it’s never a cheat.”

Legends such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole previously made use of the studio’s hallowed echo chambers, located 30 feet below street level, which were designed by Les Paul in the Fifties. “Some things you can’t improve on,” Yoakam stresses. “The echo, the walls. The tile on the floor is the same as when Gene Vincent stood there and sang. And there’s that great Neve console, which has been there for over 35 years. Whether you’re doing guitars or vocals or anything else, that board gives you back exactly what you give it. It’s sobering at first, but I think that’s important…”

This is an excerpt from the all-new NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story, plus features on Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood’s revealing 1965 diary, David Gilmour’s new album, Joe Bonamassa sharing his vintage guitar collection with five lucky fans, rare photos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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  • greg gary

    Great Magazine.