Dwight YoakamEXPAND
Dwight Yoakam
Emily Joyce

Outlaw Country Legend Dwight Yoakam Is Back — With More Reverb Than Ever

They’re located under the conical Capitol Records Building: eight echo chambers, which guitar innovator Les Paul designed for Capitol Studios in the 1950s. Country music maverick Dwight Yoakam makes tasty use of them on his vibrant 15th studio album, Second Hand Heart.

Yoakam’s limber vocals ripple with crystalline, rich tone, high in the mix. Particularly on songs like the chiming “She,” gallop-strum opener “In Another World,” kicky rockabilly “The Big Time” and steady rolling “Believe.”

“There’s nothing else in the world that quite sounds like those chambers at Capitol and that room, Studio B, will not lie,” Yoakam says. “You better go in there telling the truth. I just love the room.”

Yoakam deserves a little credit too. His singing on Second Hand Heart, out April 14, is startlingly strong, whether it’s raucous (Kinks-at-Sun-Records ditty “Liar”) or intimate (a “Suspicious Minds”-like reworking of his 2000 track “Dreams of Clay”).

The L.A.-based actor-singer-songwriter is celebrating Second Hand Heart with a special album release show at Whisky a Go Go April 13. Yes, even after 29 years and 25 million albums sold worldwide, in one regard, Yoakam’s career has moved only about 530 feet. The record release show for his 1986 debut LP Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., which introduced his cowpunk charisma to the world, was held at the Roxy, just up the Strip.

Yoakam checks in for this phone interview from a desk in his Laurel Canyon home office.

Chris Lord-Alge, who mixed Second Hand Heart, said no Auto-Tune or any other pitch correction were used on your vocals. How many takes does it you to get to that kind of performance? Or do you just fall out of bed like that?

It’s like movie acting. When I did Panic Room with David Fincher, he’s notorious for a lot of takes. He’s very much a perfectionist and he’s got a very clear vision of exactness in his mind when he shoots a scene. His demands for exactness are beyond probably anybody’s I’ve ever worked with. It allowed me as an actor, much like doing theater, time to explore the delivery. That’s what I do in the studio when I sing. I’ll explore the intent of the lyric each time I do it. So no, what Chris meant, knock wood, is my pitch is always pretty good. It’s a matter of me doing takes because I want to have a certain syncopation or flow with everything else that’s going on in the track.

Do you remember the first time you ever set foot inside the Whisky?

In 1978 I drove up to the Whisky a Go Go — I was living out in Long Beach — and I saw [X guitarist] Billy Zoom open with his original rockabilly band for Robert Gordon, and The Blasters were on the bill earlier. Robert Gordon came out with Link Wray on lead guitar and it was masterful and one of the most sonically exploding kind of sounds I’d ever heard. I don’t know if Link was going through Marshalls or those Acoustic old stacks, but it was loud. That was my first experience ever in the Whiskey a Go Go. 

The Guardian recently published a story with the headline “Country Music Is the New Hair Metal — And We Need a Nirvana Moment.” What do you make of that assessment?

Well, you know what? I think in recorded music history there’s a beginning, middle and end to any kind of wave of sound and there are a lot of emulations of things that can take something that was a unique moment of sound and turn it into something more commonplace. Make it seem generic. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is. And it’s always interesting when somebody comes and goes against the grain literally and figuratively, and Nirvana certainly did that. It’s happened before, I’m sure it will certainly happen again. It’s upon each generation of artists to find that in themselves and hopefully take an audience on that journey. Hopefully what I do remains enough to entertain people and interest and engage listeners.

On Second Hand Heart, you’re playing a lot of electric rhythm guitar and it’s a major part of the sound of songs like “She” and the title track.

It becomes a little more reckless and raw boned, I guess. And there’s an immediacy to that perhaps that feels similar to Guitars, Cadillacs to me at the moment, the kind of reckless joy for me and my band at that time to make and perform. But I would say there’s a bit of a touchstone homage to all those echo returns in my head from AM car radio. It’s all about the radio and a car. The stuff that makes you drive fast and crazy. There’s a bit of Hollies going on also as much as there’s some Stones. There might be some melodic progressions that come from some different sources.

Look, The Beatles were taking as much from the Everly Brothers as they were from Motown at the time they broke. And Buddy Holly. The first hit song they ever had in the U.K. in 1962, “Love Me Do,” is their version of the Everly Brothers.

But it always becomes the individual artist’s own, I think, if you’re being true to yourself. I can’t get southeast Kentucky out of me in any record I ever do and won’t try. But it’s baked in the California sun. I always said I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio but I grew up in California. Because I dropped out of Ohio State at 20 years old and ended up out here and had my adult life here. And went into Capitol B, where I made this record, to do my first six studio albums.

Working at Capitol Studios, Studio B can you still feel the ghosts of the artists like Gene Vincent and Buck Owens who previously recorded there? Or does it just feel like 2015?

“Be-Bop-A-Lula” is all around you, man, that’s all I can tell you. Those echo chambers, if they could talk. They do actually when you sing through them.

Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand HeartEXPAND
Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand Heart
Warner Bros./Reprise

Dwight Yoakam plays Whisky a Go Go 7:30 p.m. April 13. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets are $70 and available online via ticketweb.com. Second Hand Heart is out April 14 on Warner Bros./Reprise. More info at dwightyoakam.com.

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