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Late afternoon on a Wednesday in December, and I'm in a glass-walled conference room in a Hollywood office building, waiting for an audience with Dwight Yoakam. This is his office. The plan was we'd meet at 4:30, but then 4:30 comes and goes, and then a Los Angeles winter sunset stripes the sky outside the window in blazing chemical-sorbet colors, throwing orange light on Dwight's gold and platinum albums, his framed certificates of achievement from this or that songwriters' association, the posters from films he's appeared in, his neatly stacked coffee-table books on art and design, his Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chair, his little Jeff Koons balloon-dog sculpture. Then night falls, and just as I'm beginning to run out of things to say to the representative from Dwight's management company who's waiting with me, here's Dwight, walking in the door with an evening iced tea in a giant reusable plastic cup, sighing apologies. Before ducking into a back room to wrap up a phone call, he conducts a quick inspection of the space and pauses by the conference-room door, at whose base a small birch-bark reindeer with a red-ribbon tie has been doorstoppishly positioned. “Hey, Kyle?” Dwight says to Kyle, who works for him, and Kyle pops out of his office, and they sidebar about the reindeer, and by the time Dwight has finished his call, Rudolph has been disappeared.
Everything in its right place. When people come to visit, Dwight likes to sit in the swivel chair at the head of the conference table. Behind that chair there's a chest of drawers, and in the top drawer there's a collection of coasters made from the punched-out centers of old vinyl records, and before he finally drops into his seat, Dwight takes some time looking through that drawer for a coaster to replace the plain peppermint-striped one I've been provided with, passing over Glen Campbell and Crystal Gayle, briefly contemplating Charlie Rich—“You don't do much better than that, c'mon now”—before locating the perfect coaster, formerly the center of a Sun Records Johnny Cash LP. “I mean, this one was good,” he says, holding up the Charlie Rich. “ ‘Lonely Weekends.’ But it's not Johnny Cash.”
He turned 63 this fall. Still fits into boot-cut Levi's he bought in the '80s without too much trouble. In the foyer of Dwight's office there's a cardboard cutout of Dwight circa 1987's Hillbilly Deluxe, crossing one leg over the other at the ankle, and at one point Dwight stands across from the cutout and does the same thing with his 63-year-old legs—not on purpose; I'm pretty sure it's just how he stands—and it's like he's in front of a mirror. Tonight he's wearing a pinstripe dress shirt with a banker's collar; a trucker cap tamps down the gray Ebenezer Scrooge flyaways that rim his bald head. He's spent the past few weeks bouncing back and forth between L.A. and a six-night residency at the Wynn Las Vegas, which he describes as both a profoundly rewarding experience and “kind of a Medusa head of snakes that I'm wrestling every night.” Yoakam could easily have built a standard greatest-hits victory-lap show surveying his 35-year career—17 studio albums since 1986, most recently 2016's bluegrass corker Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars—but when he was approached by the Wynn, he decided to mount something more ambitious. The show is called An Evening With Dwight Yoakam and the Bakersfield Beat, and it's a loosely chronological survey of California country music history as shaped by waves of newcomers—Okies traveling what Dwight likes to call “that Tom Joad road” out of Steinbeckian privation, military transplants, migrating blue-collar workers, aspirant creatives chasing Hollywood light, that sort of thing. (Yoakam is friends with Ed Ruscha, another transplant who became an iconic California artist; one time Dwight asked Ruscha why he'd left Oklahoma City for Los Angeles at the end of the '50s, and Ruscha pointed at the sky and said, The light, man, the light!)
The Vegas show tells the same story that he's been telling since 2018 on his SiriusXM station, also called Dwight Yoakam and the Bakersfield Beat, where he opens the mic once a week to kick it with Beck or Post Malone or Bob Weir and curates selections from a playlist whose aesthetic motto is “From the Dust Bowl to the Hollywood Bowl, from Buck to the Byrds.” That'd be country legend Buck Owens, who pioneered the hard-edged “Bakersfield sound” in the mid-1960s, racked up a string of country hits at a time when Nashville was increasingly turning out gentrified countrypolitan corn syrup, and occupies a place in the personal cosmos of Dwight Yoakam as central as the sun's.
Just explaining that whole conceptual framework, Yoakam says with a laugh, takes “an hour and a half.” But it's also an unscripted, highly conversational production, so over the course of the run the Vegas shows actually got longer—Dwight would remember something he forgot to say about Buck or Merle Haggard or Tommy Collins or the Byrds, or he'd start talking about, say, Linda Ronstadt, who covered two songs by Yoakam's old friend Warren Zevon on 1977's Simple Dreams, and then he'd have no choice but to stop and play Zevon's “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” before getting back on track. Dwight grew up in the church, abstains from everything—the author of “This Drinkin' Will Kill Me” has never touched a drop—but you've never had a conversation this digressive with someone who does not get high. You ask a question, then he's off, parkouring from subject to subject, and before you know it Dwight Yoakam is saying things like “I would even point to the Spanish-American War” or “And that begins, to my way of thinking, with Northern and Western Europe throwing off the yoke of theocracy, and the writings of John Calvin, and Martin Luther, going back centuries earlier, and that's what leads us…” in response to a question along the lines of “So how long have you had this office space?”
At one point our conversation spirals from Merle Haggard to the Maddox Brothers and Rose to a particular shot from the Amazon Prime series Patriot to the underdiscussed formal impact of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio on the modern novel to David Bowie. Dwight met Bowie in the '90s and asked him about Elvis Presley, because Bowie and Elvis share a birthday—which is the kind of thing Dwight knows—and Bowie told him that six months before Elvis's death, the King had called Bowie and asked him to produce his next record, because apparently Elvis loved “Golden Years.” Bowie said he'd do it; then every time he tried to call Elvis after that, some Memphis Mafia guy would pick up and say, “He can't come to the phone right now, man.” Dwight's never forgotten anything and everything reminds him of something, is the point. Sometimes it's like talking to Doctor Manhattan.
Whether this is intentional or not, it's a good way of avoiding giving too much away. Yoakam spends a big chunk of our first few hours together in enthusiastic disc jockey mode, illustrating fine points about AM-radio pop and the outward ripples of the Bakersfield sound by blasting the Monkees' “Last Train to Clarksville” and Ricky Nelson's “Stood Up” and David Essex's “Rock On” and the Bee Gees' “Jive Talkin’ ” (“That's as rubber as the Gap Band! That's badass street R&B!”) into my recorder. By the end of the night he's left the room, returned with a guitar case, and pulled out an old Martin acoustic, so he can punctuate the rest of the interview with fragments of other songs, singing his own “Please, Please Baby” to demonstrate the pained hiccup-sob that made him hear mountain music in David Essex and teasing out the links between “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Street Fighting Man.” Like the Vegas show, it's an autobiographical conversation—Dwight's mapping his idiosyncratic personal canon and implicitly situating his own work in a recombinant tradition of late-20th-century pop music, a postmodern Bakersfield of the mind—but not a particularly personal one. It's not until the transcript comes back that I realize how many of his stories are about other people's stories, how guarded he's been able to remain while talking a mile a minute.
“AM radio was effervescent. It was the jet age colliding with the space age. It was Saturn V rockets launching with every single.”
His own story goes something like this. He ends up being as pure a California artist as Beck or Dr. Dre, but for what it's worth he's born, in 1956, in “hard-core Appalachia”—Pike County, Kentucky, where the actual Hatfields fought the actual McCoys. “Two counties up from me, along Route 23, is Johnson County, where Loretta Lynn was born,” Yoakam says. “Crystal Gayle, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley—they're all born within a 50-mile radius of that highway that ran up the river and went over into Ohio and then up to Columbus and then on to Detroit.” Years later he'll write the song “Readin', Rightin', Route 23” about that road and about sons and daughters of the holler heading north in search of “the good life that they had never seen.” Dwight's raised in Columbus, but his parents—his dad owns a gas station, his mom's a keypunch operator—bring him back to Kentucky whenever they can. You can hear it in the music, he tells me. “Those sounds, that musical DNA—the Bill Monroe, the Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers' mountain music, the Carter Family. Innately I write that way.”
But the Monkees are formative too, because they explode into the living room every week in color, which even the Beatles don't do. AM radio is huge. “AM radio was effervescent,” Yoakam says. “It was the jet age colliding with the space age. It was Saturn V rockets launching with every single.” Dwight plays music alone in his room, bangs along with “Last Train to Clarksville” on a silver sparkle Ludwig snare drum in his parents' basement, quits guitar lessons after learning “enough chords to be dangerous.” But the first time he's cognizant of his ability to hold people's attention is when he's doing high school plays in Columbus; the second time is a few years later, when he performs in a talent show fronting a Sha Na Na-style '50s-revival band called Dwight and the Greasers. The question of what he's going to become is still wide open when he leaves home in his orange VW Super Beetle in the late '70s. After he auditions to perform at Opryland in Nashville and gets slotted as an alternate, he keeps moving west.
“There were no open doors on the Hollywood side of the hill in '77, '78, '79, '80,” Yoakam says. Instead he works over in the Valley, at country bars like the Corral, playing to cops and bikers and meth dealers and guys who'd ride their horses down from the San Gabriels. At the dawn of the '80s, country-pop stars like Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap are running the country charts, the smoothed-out Urban Cowboy soundtrack is about to sell a few million copies, and the genre's about to push up the sleeves of its Members Only jacket to make itself presentable for boot-scootin' yuppies. But Yoakam played the Corral on off nights, when the rules were looser. “They had a real top-notch cover band on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, but I would play Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday,” he says. “I spent 12 months straight doing whatever I wanted to do.”
He cuts some demos at night while driving an air-freight truck during the day, makes an EP, starts selling it out of the trunk of his car just like N.W.A would a few years later. He graduates to the Palomino in North Hollywood, a legendary L.A. country landmark at the tail end of its heyday. It's the early '80s and the intersection of punk and roots is where the action is—X, the Blasters, a former East L.A. wedding band called Los Lobos del Este (de Los Angeles). “Cowpunk” isn't quite Dwight's vibe, but suddenly there's a space in the scene for the kind of hard-driving traditional music he and his band are starting to make. They open up for Hüsker Dü and the Violent Femmes and the crowds get it. “There was a visceral release for us onstage,” Dwight says. “It's not genre- or idiom-specific. Emotional expression is what we had in common with any audience we played in front of. Human beings respond to that, independent of genre. So I was walking out in front of Hüsker Dü's crowd, playing ‘Can't You Hear Me Callin' ’ by Bill Monroe—raved up, 100 miles an hour!”
You can hear it on the bonus disc included with the reissue of Dwight's debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., released in 1986—a live show from that same year, which included fired-up runs through “My Bucket's Got a Hole in It” and “Mystery Train” recorded live at the Roxy, a stone's throw from the office building we're sitting in today. The energy that made Yoakam read as a fellow traveler in front of punk crowds made him inconceivable as a country star. He tells a story about a Nashville record executive who came to see him open for Nick Lowe at the Hollywood Palace and sniffed, “It's awfully rock and roll”—this, about a set full of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs covers. When he gets a record deal with Warner Records' newly reactivated Reprise imprint, he's technically signing with the label's Nashville division, but he views himself as answerable only to the Warner head office in Burbank, where execs like Lenny Waronker have given unconventional artists a long leash since the commercially nowhere heydays of Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. Waronker brings John Prine and Emmylou Harris to see the Roxy show, calls up Dwight the next day, and says, “None of my colleagues are ever gonna let me live this down if they find out I'm telling you this, but if anybody ever tells you to do anything that goes against your instinct or your intuition, ever, here or any place in this business, don't do it. Because what I watched you do last night is intuitive.”
“I was walking out in front of Hüsker Dü's crowd, playing ‘Can't You Hear Me Callin' ’ by Bill Monroe—raved up, 100 miles an hour!”
Whether Yoakam actually needed this permission to do things exactly the way he wanted to is debatable; his then manager, Sherman Halsey, had already strong-armed Reprise into letting Yoakam choose his own songs and his own producer, an unheard-of demand for a new artist on a country label to make.
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. is essentially a rerelease of Yoakam's first EP plus four new songs, including the title track, on which Dwight lists guitars, Cadillacs, and “hillbilly music” as “the only things that keep me hangin' on.” When it came time to release the song as a single, the label called up Dwight's producer, asking if Dwight could be persuaded to recut it without the H-word. The producer didn't tell Dwight about this until later, Dwight says, “after it was the second massive hit off the album.”
So he got to make the records he wanted to make—Pikeville by way of the Palomino—and became kind of a big deal, for a minute. His cover of Johnny Horton's “Honky-Tonk Man” became the first country video to air on MTV; peeved by Yoakam's omnipresence, Steve Earle reportedly graffitied “DWIGHT YOAKAM EATS SUSHI” on the wall of a Hollywood Palladium dressing room. (They were friendly then, Yoakam says, and still are; they spent the summer of 2018 on the road with Lucinda Williams, on a bill they called the LSD Tour.) Sharon Stone brought him as her date to the 1992 Academy Awards; Dwight wore leather pants. Yoakam acted in his first movie in 1993, holding his own opposite Dennis Hopper and Nicolas Cage in John Dahl's indie noir Red Rock West. That same year, his third record, This Time, went platinum; it's still the biggest-selling album he's ever made. He says he never felt like he was on track to be a country megastar—a Garth, an Alan Jackson, a George Strait, a Tim McGraw—and that this has always been okay with him. Something else might have been possible, if he'd made different decisions, but like the great Tom T. Hall says in a song Yoakam loves to quote, That's how I got to Memphis.
At one point that night we'd been talking about—well, we'd been talking about 15 things at once, as usual—but Dwight had mentioned the multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, who played Dobro and mandolin on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc Etc. Mansfield also wrote the score to Michael Cimino's beautiful, misunderstood, commercially disastrous American art-Western Heaven's Gate and appeared in the movie as a roller-skating fiddler. Heaven's Gate reminded Dwight of It's a Wonderful Life, another box office disappointment, whose initial failure precipitated director Frank Capra's early retirement from the business, a movie that survived long enough to re-enter the American cultural canon because it was allowed to slip into the public domain, which meant TV stations could rebroadcast it for free.
“You know, art is a seed,” Yoakam said. “And some things are quick-growing, fast-bearing of fruit, and other plants are a slow growth, but they'll become the redwood forest, the sequoias, or the aspen. The aspen forest—maybe the largest singular living organism on the planet. That's just different. And that's not to dismiss bamboo. Bamboo has its own majesty, you know? But don't dismiss the thing that takes longer to germinate. Mountains are not, in fact, grown overnight. But a million and a half years later, Wow, y'know? That range is pretty spectacular to visit.”
So are you an aspen, or are you bamboo?
“Oh, I don't know,” Dwight says, and laughs. “I can be bamboo.” Pause. “I'm probably just dandelions. I go with the wind.”
Alex Pappademas is a writer living in Los Angeles.
A version of this story appears in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of GQ Style with the title “Tall Tales With Dwight Yoakam.” Due to a transcription mistake, Yoakam was briefly misquoted in the print edition. We regret the error.
Photographs by Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Emily Joyce
Originally Appeared on GQ