Having been immersed in recent weeks in not just the long story of country music but the more recent and genre-redefining times of Garth Brooks, who for some of us almost killed the pleasure in country during the 1990s, it seemed appropriate to rediscover one of those who kept country alive and exciting.
In this 2012 interview, Dwight Yoakam talks past and future, 3 Pears and two-steps, and why Emmylou matters more.
Dwight Yoakam’s office sits high up in a typical glass-and-steel corporate tower on Sunset Boulevard, with a view which can make him sigh with pleasure at the unexpected beauty of this not always attractive city. "Look at downtown, look at the light huh,” he interrupts at one point, eyes lighting up. “LA sometimes reminds me of Sydney in terms of the light and how it refracts at times of the year.”
But down the uniformly bland hall from the uniformly ordinary lifts of this otherwise indistinguishable building, his rooms have cowhide lounges, a well-preserved saddle in a corner, big leather chairs and pre-World War II wooden furniture. Homely, earthy even, and kind of old fashioned.
That sounds about right for one of the biggest country music stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s and one of a handful of people who can legitimately be described as game changers. No, not just for the resurrection of the big hat and tight jeans as the uniform for any male country singer – something which will be obvious during his November tour of Australia where he’ll be supported by that big hat/tight jean wearer, Lee Kernaghan. But also for the return of white America's soul music to the upper reaches of the charts and the centre of music industry spreadsheets
However, look around the office and there’s plenty to remind you that Yoakam, despite his status – and being named Dwight David Yoakam, after a quintessential American hero of the 20th century, president Dwight David Eisenhower - has never quite fit the cliches of that most conservative strand of American music.
There’s the fact we’re not in Nashville but in Los Angeles (where the Kentucky-born Yoakam has lived for more than 30 years) and that throughout the rooms are artefacts and memorabilia of ‘60s pop and posters from the films in which he's acted.
A gig poster on the back of one door gives you a sense of how Yoakam really didn't fit the mould, ever. It's for a show in Amsterdam in the early ‘90s and his support act is fellow Los Angelenos Concrete Blonde, indie rockers who were as likely to play country music as they were to vote Republican.
The truth is that what Yoakam called hillbilly music, his boisterous mix of the high and lonesome Appalachians and the big twanging, honky tonk of the Bakersfield sound of one of his heroes, Buck Owens, have always been just a little bit too country for the establishment.
When the Nashville nabobs saw just how much more money could be made with “country music” which sounded more and more like pop and rock, they found the likes of Yoakam and Emmylou Harris, like the ‘70s “outlaws” Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, a tad embarrassing.
"Ironically, Willie and Emmylou in their attitude were so removed from mainstream country music that they had more in common with rock audiences and rock musicians,” Yoakam says admiringly.
That’s why, even when he was at his commercial peak selling 25 million albums, Yoakam remained an outsider, more likely to be admired by fans who crossed over to explore rock’s roots in country music, than those who claimed to like “both kinds of music: country and western”.
He says that’s partly down to location as “I'm as physically removed from [Nashville] as you can go without swimming”. It’s more than distance though, it’s also attitudinal.
Having begun his LA life playing alongside the underground bands and so-called cowpunks like the Blasters, after growing up a Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Burrito Brothers fan, he has never wanted to be constricted.
"I made a decision in the ‘70s, after going to Nashville and exploring what the world was there, that that wasn't where I would find my way,” says Yoakam who today is without his hat, his thin grey hair hanging long at the back but pretty sparse across the top. “I’d been drawn sonically here in an immediate sense by Emmylou Harris because I’d watched in college the beacon that Emmylou Harris was from the west coast, from this outpost, making this pertinent, contemporary version of country music. Hers was more pure country than country rock but it didn’t have boundaries.”
You could say much the same thing about Yoakam's new album, his first studio album in seven years, called 3 Pears. It’s got high vocals and near-yodels, drums with snap and guitars with big open sky sounds. It’s more country in a few minutes than, say, Keith Urban has been in 15 years.
But there’s also a song co-written with former rock rapper turned roots act Kid Rock, another he calls “very cow punk, aggressive”, produced by Beck (“I said to him later we may have married the Stones’ Last Time meeting up with Johnny Cash somewhere out there in space”), splashes of soul music and several tracks with harmonies he attributes to channelling the Beatles channelling the Everly Brothers.
“I was born in Pike Country, Kentucky, right against the border of Grundy, Virginia where the Carter Family came from. Ralph Stanley, the Stanley Brothers [were from nearby too],” Yoakam says.
“I received the blessing in being born into a time and place where I was able to be imprinted with the richness of the cultural heritage But I'm marrying a lot of the car radio that's in my head, my mind's ear, with this moment in the 21st-century where I am right now. The future is where I've arrived at."