Dwight Yoakam is one of a very few cats in contemporary country who can hold his head up as an uncompromised creative force, a quality befitting California's country heritage. Now, following the double whammy of losing Merle Haggard and Red Simpson last year, he is the sole credible survivor left representing the Golden State‘s rich legacy.
The Kentucky-born Yoakam has long portrayed a character through his music, a self-created bandstand archetype, and he pointedly remains an enigmatic, somewhat opaque personality. While acting has, at times, de-emphasized Yoakam’s primary function — an important country music star and, to a degree, a tradition-bearer — music remains his professional anchor.
His current album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, is a kicking, convincing set of bluegrass remakes of Yoakam staples, the latest stop in a three-decade-plus career of not inconsiderable success — nine platinum albums, 14 top-10 hits and more than 25 million records sold, all of which Yoakam has managed with a consistent, offbeat audacity. Most recently manifested through a Jack White collaboration and his bluegrass version of “Purple Rain” (which appears on Swimmin' Pools), and continued with a show with punk legends X at the Hollywood Palladium on Thursday, this ornery individualism also reflects California country’s upstart legacy.
But for all his high-profile gallivanting and artistic risk-taking, it’s important to remember that Yoakam came up back when country was still country, when Jones and Haggard still got radio airplay and ’tonks like the Palomino in North Hollywood were filled with impenetrable fogs of secondhand smoke. For performers and fans, it was a beautiful, very different world.
“Oh yeah, the Palomino, I started going there in ’77, ’78, when I first arrived out here.” Yoakam says. “You’d see Asleep at the Wheel’s bus parked out back for two or three days straight. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis there, with a trio, one of the greatest shows ever.”
Before long, Yoakam himself was a Palomino regular, and after he formed an alliance with Detroit-born guitarist-producer Pete Anderson, things quickly began to drive ahead.
“I had clarity about music in myself at a young age, a view of what I wanted to express, and a view of my heritage,” he says. “Being born in Southeastern Kentucky, that Appalachian musical culture was there in great strength in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And then moving here, working with Pete, he acted as anchor for the definition of myself and a confirmation of that view. I had a certain tenacity, and humility was a key element, absolutely, a tenacious humility.”
Before L.A., Yoakam had tried Nashville but found it didn't suit him. “When I got there, I discovered my lack of awareness about how Nashville actually functioned — that it all happened in a few little houses on Music Row. I sort of kicked the tires and saw that it just wouldn’t work for me, and I ended up here, where my stubbornness and belief in the music made sense. And with what Pete and I did from there, and how it all unfolded, it was clear that there was nothing to be gained from compromising.
“The music always felt like something I had to be responsible for, maintaining its dignity and credibility. And I don’t mean mine — I mean the music. It felt like I had an obligation. It’s an emotional thing, a shared awareness. It’s about people, time and place — what that music meant to you, to people.”
The mythic, honky-tonk West and its Dust Bowl diaspora held a magnetic appeal for the singer, providing an inescapable context that has been consistently reflected in his own work’s underlying fealty to the theme.
“Waylon [Jennings] and I were talking about it once,” Yoakam says. “How he broke out of Phoenix with that famous Waylon at JD’s album, and I said, ’That’s like a Greater Bakersfield sound,’ and he said, ‘Yes I know, it is a West Coast sound.’ Next thing, Waylon’s here in Hollywood with Herb Alpert at A&M, wearing a Nehru jacket on his album cover. And look at Chris Hillman, who really doesn’t get credit, in terms of what he did for modern country music — a bluegrass mandolin player who formed The Byrds and created country rock. The Byrds, the Burritos, the Nudie suits, that whole mystique was also part of it for me, coming out here.
“And in California there is a lot of that whole Tom Joad type of spirit, that Tom Joad stubbornness," he adds, referencing the protagonist of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. "Buck [Owens] didn’t really articulate that in his music, because he was too close to it, in his own life. His family came out here but the National Guard turned them away at the state line because they didn’t have enough cash, so they settled in Mesa, Arizona. But Merle, being born [in California], could write about it, and he did. He really saw all that and was able to write incredible songs like 'Mama Tried' and 'Hungry Eyes.'"
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That characteristic California attitude extends beyond country music, of course. "Dave Alvin has a lot of that Tom Joad in him," Yoakam notes, "which is why we had an affinity for each other, and how The Blasters came to help us out, putting us on shows with all these punk bands, and now it’s coming full circle, 31 years later, with X at the Palladium.”
A man with a necessarily formidable ego, Yoakam is nonetheless hesitant to readily accept the mantle of post-Haggard California country primacy “I’d never done any of Merle’s songs in my modern show,” Yoakam said. ”Of course, in the clubs, they were a staple. Since he passed, I always sing some of his songs, right after 'Streets of Bakersfield.' It just feels like the right spot.
"I can’t think of myself as the last man" representing California country, he adds. "I don’t really consider myself in that context. I mean, there’s got to be someone [else] out there, right?"
Dwight Yoakam performs with special guests X at the Hollywood Palladium on Thursday, March 30. Tickets and more info.