Interview - Dwight Yoakam Gave Me the History of Country Rock in Los Angeles
Dwight Yoakam speaks with the wisdom of a man who’s seen and done more things in his fifty-six years of life than most normal, well-adjusted people could ever hope to do in Yoda’s lifetime. Yoakam came up in the early-80s Los Angeles rock scene, playing old-school country music with the sensibility of the punk bands he was often playing shows with, when his Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. helped propel him to country stardom. But just because the dude's sold 25 million albums doesn't mean he's not still a badass who doesn't mind stepping out of his comfort zone: Yoakam has also acted in Sling Blade, appeared on King of the Hill, and also tapped Beck to produce songs for his newest album 3 Pears, which also features a Kid Rock co-writing credit. Yoakam called me from Los Angeles to talk 3 Pears, drop some history on my ass, and explain what you're supposed to learn in life.
NOISEY: Let’s jump right into it. How did you get hooked up with Beck for 3 Pears?
Dwight Yoakam: I just had a hunch that he and I might be interesting together, and I didn’t know whether he’d be interested in doing anything or not. Turns out he was, so he came over to my office and we sat around for about four hours, just talking music. He’s a real equipment aficionado, and really knew the gear, the old tube gear and stuff. He’d just recently acquired one of the original Capital Studios boards here in Capitol. He has an old EMI too; we’re not sure whether it was one of the ones The Beatles used or not. e called up and said, “Hey, I’ve got something I’m gonna maybe take a shot at doing for a TV show, and if you’d be interested in writing something or co-writing, getting together and co-writing…” Subsequently, before I went over to his home studio I had come up with this idea and it’s written—the song “A Heart Like Mine,” I said “I’ve got this thing, kinda Creedence-y, kinda “Bad Moon Rising.” He had an assistant engineer play drums and that’s the track that we created that day, “A Heart Like Mine.” Turned out as a bit of a template and a catalyst for a lot of the rest of the records, certainly how I was going to approach recording.
The record also features Kid Rock.
That was a song that only took 20 years and three hours to write. I’d had the song, the opening chorus and hook lying around for about almost 20 years, and I kicked it around for a couple of years and just thought “There’s something cool about that, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it, though.” And Kid Rock’s got a place here in Los Angeles and was staying here for a week or so and said, “You wanna come over and try writing something together?” So I got there and pulled that out and said, “Here’s something I started to write years ago and never really finished.” And he said, “Finish that.” He lit a cigar and started pacing back and forth and typing. He’d be out on the balcony, puffing away, then dart back in the room and typing something up. Either he sang to me or I sang back to him, and we finished it out.
You came into country music at a time that in a way mirrors something that’s going on today in terms of the poppier stuff largely dominating country.
Mid-eighties it was pretty pop-country. Early to mid-eighties. But there were some great beacons of light for traditional country music on the scene at the time. George Strait had had several hits at that point. Ricky Skaggs was a real beacon for everybody in my generation who wanted to point to the fact that traditional country music could still sell, and still was pertinent to an audience. I think it’s incumbent upon the individual artist in any given generation to maintain their contact with the traditional forms and the fundamental aspects of any genre.
I was operating outside the confines of the machinery of commercial country music, which allowed us to have I think an outsider’s fingerprint that led to commercial success.
Can you tell me a bit about what it was like being in the L.A. music scene back when you were starting out?
3 Pears is actually kind of a sonic manifestation of a term that had been applied to the scene in LA in the early eighties, the kind of cross-pollination of rockers becoming country musicians that was dubbed at that time, no longer “Country Rock,” but “Cowpunk,” because it was post-punk Los Angeles that spawned a lot of the bands. There was a former punk band, The Dils, which was fronted by two brothers, Tony and Chip Kinman. They became Rank and File. There was Lone Justice, which had been some young rockers who got together and created their own version of country music at that moment. The band X, the great punk band out of LA, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, formed and fronted—along with Dave Alvin from The Blasters—formed sort of an unplugged version of themselves and called it The Knitters, in homage to the Weavers, one of the folk-country sounds that they had done. I know Los Crusados had been formerly The Plugs, a punk band.
Mojo Nixon and I were talking about it recently. There was this great moment—and you know, Los Lobos had just broken through with their first nationally-acknowledged album and there was this wonderful moment of eclectic embrace of country music in the rock clubs in LA, sort of like it had happened in the late-sixties, early-seventies. There had been this moment that gave birth vis-à-vis Chris Hillman. First, initially, Chris Hillman and the Byrds and that bringing about—in deference to Chris, he hates the term “Country Rock”—but there, it really did create a form of music that was uniquely country music played by rock musicians, with a rock emotional aesthetic, or emotional component that actually became, I think, it’s own genre. With “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album he brought Clarence White in to play guitar on the album, pretty soon that meant Hillman and Gram Parsons came in with him and joined the band for a brief period. Then he along with Gram formed “The Burrito Brothers,” “The Flying Burrito Brothers” was this almost mythological country-rock band where a bunch of long haired rock guys wore nudie suits and played traditional country music with a rock and roll aesthetic. They didn’t realize any commercial success, but they really godfathered everything that came after it. Without The Byrds and Chris and what they were doing, I don’t know that you have Linda Ronstadt as she broke away from the Stone Poneys and became the country-rock goddess that she became. So all that begat, I think, the later scene.
There’s always been a legacy of country music in Los Angeles, in Southern California. In LA there have been country nightclubs all over LA, going back to the thirties, the twenties and thirties. James Ellroy writes about it with great descriptive acuity in My Dark Places; he talks about the San Gabriel Valley and the nightclubs that were there at the time and throughout his novels he’ll address it. But there’s always been a great legacy—Johnny Cash lived for a time in Southern California, would play on the Town Hall party down in a weekly show that was broadcast out of Compton, “The Melody Ranch.” Things like that were around. There were these regional TV shows, that spawned a lot of great artists. So the thing that drew me out here—Emmylou Harris also had her career based on Chris Hillman and the Byrds and what they started with folk slash country rock. Because, vis-à-vis Chris introducing Gram to Emmy, she came out of the DC folk scene, kind of a country scene, and ended up on the West Coast and was a beacon for me. By 1972 or ‘73 when Elite Hotel came out, I had latched onto that album. I was in my first year of college, and never let go of it. It threw me to the West Coast. I had been a fan of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, but I also had been a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, which was that kind of Bay Area country-rock. “Swamp Rock,” as it’s referred to. And Beck and I even chased that a bit, in terms of the groove of “A Heart Like Mine.” I told him, I said, “Everybody always does kind of the Swamp groove variation of what John Fogerty did, but nobody ever really attacked the country parts of “Bad Moon Rising.” I said, “That’s what that song, to me, needs.” And so he had his assistant engineer, as I said, play drums on it, and we end up with this kind of great, Stones-colliding-with-Johnny-Cash staccato bounce.
How did you get into this whole thing? At what age were you like “I’m gonna move out to LA?”
I was a teenager when I first started thinking of it. I was playing guitar from the time I can remember. There’s shots of me at eighteen months old with a guitar that was bigger than me that I dragged around. I fell over an old Kay guitar that my father had brought home. Kay was the name of the company that made these median price instruments that a lot of people played. I tripped and fell on a guitar and broke it, and at eight I go and get another real guitar, at eight years old and began writing songs even, at that age—trying to, at least. And then by high school I had a rockabilly band put together and then really started dreaming big (laughs).
What do you think you had that a lot of people didn’t that allowed you to actually become a star?
Timing and luck. And ultimately, you have to have a tenacious, dogged determination. You have to possess violent perseverance. Or you have to engage in violent persevering. I arrived in L.A. at 20 years old, and I was 29 when I signed my record deal. So it was nine years—I drove air freight trucks, I drove delivery trucks, I worked on loading docks at department stores, a little bit of everything.
What did doing that teach you?
Drew Millard sweeps the ashes out in the morning on Twitter - @drewmillard