Hats Off

Dwight Yoakam's the last great country singer -- and he doesn't need a twang to prove it

It's so damned hot in Austin on this Saturday that condensation forms on your skin before you're all the way out the door. You're like a cold-drink bottle just taken from a frigid icebox. Your clothes stick to your skin until they become your skin. You don't just sweat in heat and humidity like this -- you leak.

But up in his Four Seasons suite overlooking the rushing Town Lake and a panoramic view of lush green trees capped by cotton-ball clouds, Dwight Yoakam is outfitted like a man who never perspires. Such is the look, of course, of a musician who long ago planned to be the coolest dude you've ever seen. It's a rare day off during a three-month shoot for The Newton Boys, the latest Richard Linklater film. But Yoakam wears the garb of a performer just inches from a stage no matter where he is.

He sports a light blue silk shirt with a row of white buttons running up the cuffs. His legs are bound in those infamous skin-tight blue jeans. The jeans pour over white boots with tips so pointed they seem to have been ground in a pencil sharpener.

The only thing missing on this afternoon is the hat -- The Hat, the trademark of a man who (a longtime partner says) actually plotted a career as the James Dean of country music. When Yoakam doesn't want to be recognized, he often will leave the house without The Hat -- a trick that works so well that many who saw him as the nasty Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade didn't even know who he was until the end credits ran.

Sometimes when he speaks, Yoakam will reach for The Hat or try to run his hand through his hair. It's a nervous tic, he says, a way of concentrating when his attention begins to drift -- which it often does. Yoakam rides tangents like they were bucking broncos, hanging on till the very end.

At this point in his career, Yoakam has removed The Hat both literally and figuratively. The man who is arguably one of the greatest living country singer/songwriters has become a lot more. He's an actor now, with roles in Sling Blade, Red Rock West and such made-for-cable films as Don't Look Back and Roswell, winning him the sort of acclaim rarely afforded musicians who dabble in acting.

At the same time, his music has grown far beyond country music's fences: On such albums as 1993's This Time, 1995's Gone and the brand-new Under the Covers, the Kentucky-born Yoakam has expanded his vocabulary. The twang is gone: He now goes big band or British pop or Tijuana Brass with remarkable ease and a rare canniness. Yoakam has become a one-man version of the Band -- bigger than a simple country-music icon, big enough to encompass all manner of American music.

Yet deep down, if Yoakam combines "Elvis's devastating hip swagger, Hank Williams's crazy-ass stare and Merle Haggard's brooding solitude [in] one lethal package" (as Karen Schoemer breathlessly wrote in Rolling Stone four years ago), if he is as much a rebel myth as he is a musician, he's also the best, last breed of country-music outlaw. He's Johnny Cash in the body of a lanky 40-year-old pretty boy, the country star who's neither purist nor panderer.

"It's just my music -- that's all I can do, make my music," he says. "I don't know that I can't do a straight country record anymore. I don't know what will present itself in my heart and my head. I think I'm just doing Dwight records! If there's an analogy, as close as anything, it's Cash. I always just thought it was Johnny Cash music. I knew he was a country artist in terms of the foundational aspects of what he'd done, but he started out doing rockabilly, and he never went back. He never crossed into doing pop. He stayed in that no man's land between rock and country and rockabilly. He arguably could be called the first country-rock artist, post-Hank Williams."

Though his success lies with those country radio stations that emit a signal from the heart of Nashville even if they're in Houston or Los Angeles, Yoakam has never lived in Music City; he tried once, but Nashville wouldn't have him. He's more a product of the L.A. punk scene of the early '80s, having shared many bills with the likes of X, Los Lobos, the Blasters, Lone Justice, even HYsker DY. He maintains a friendly relationship with the music's commercial home (he's signed to Warner Bros. Nashville), but only from a distance, recording all of his albums in Los Angeles. "I can maintain my perspective in my own way," he says. "And L.A. just happens to be my muse."

When Yoakam self-released his debut EP Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1984, it was clear that while he belonged to the burgeoning New Traditionalist movement that was out to rescue country from the suburban cowboys, he was hedging his bets. He sounded like Buck Owens and wrote like George Jones, but his repertoire was big enough to include the likes of Gram Parsons ("Sin City") and Dave Alvin ("Long White Cadillac"). Now he's country merely by association, more comfortable in the company of the Jayhawks than Garth Brooks, but more diverse than either -- his new CD includes a straight-faced big band swing version of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," in addition to covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles ... and Sonny and Cher.

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