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Hats Off

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.

But in the end, Under the Covers is something of a one-off. It has its moments of greatness -- including a hellfire version of Roy Orbison's "Claudette," a startlingly overwrought take on Jimmy Webb's immortal pop gem "Wichita Lineman" and a bluegrass redo of the Clash's "Train in Vain" -- but it won't sit on a shelf alongside masterpieces such as This Time, Gone or Guitars, Cadillacs.

Those three records suggest that Yoakam is the last of the great commercial country singers -- the last guy left on radio whose voice you immediately recognize, the last guy left linked to a tradition beyond yesterday's hit single, the last guy left who wears a cowboy hat because he should. There are perhaps a few others out there like him -- maybe a guy such as Wayne "The Train" Hancock, whose voice conjures the ghost of Hank Williams -- but no one nearly as good, as smart, as precise about his craft. Yoakam's as much a part of history as he is a piece of the future, the forward-looking embodiment of a dying craft.

"It seems to me that in the '60s and early '70s, you had singers," says Buck Owens, the country legend Yoakam moved to California in the late '70s to be near. "When you hear Dwight, you know who that is. Most of the time when you turn on the radio, you tell me if you know who's singing that song. I know everybody has to start somewhere, and I have no problem with that, but I have problems with record labels not letting someone develop. They all want another Garth Brooks. But where's Johnny Cash? Where's George Jones? Haggard? Where are the guys you know immediately? Patsy Cline? You knew it was Patsy as soon as you heard it.

"Dwight's one of a kind. Dwight is one of the people you remember. You might remember George Strait and Clint Black and, of course, Johnny Cash and all the guys from my years. But Dwight's the one who will transcend the next generation."

Perhaps Yoakam was born a little too late. If the AM radio of the 1960s still existed, he might be more than a star -- he might well be a legend. But instead, he has had to create the sound of AM radio from that era -- he has had to become the sounds of his youth.

"I was born in '56, so I heard radio explode in my head as a kid," he recalls now, sitting in his hotel suite and watching the housekeeper tidy up an already immaculate room. "I mean, by '66, man, AM car radio was just a uniquely, historically amazing gallery of post-World War II 20th-century cultural expression, y'know? But we don't have that -- that moment's gone now. We're back down to this very kind of myopic, segregated, narrow-focused delivery of music, and there are relatively few sources to gain some sort of exposure to an education about the diversity that caused rock and roll to happen, that caused pop music to happen as we know it."

Yoakam could have ended up in the Kentucky coal mines (where some of his relatives toiled decades ago) or pumping gas (his father, David, once owned a Texaco station in Columbus, Ohio). But instead, he untangled himself from his hillbilly roots, only to later find they still had a hold on him. In college, he briefly studied philosophy and history, but he knew that was not the world for him; the West Coast beckoned.

The Los Angeles he'd hoped to find when he moved there in 1976 didn't exist by the time he arrived. He had gone to Sin City searching for the ghost of Gram Parsons, the man who helped create country-rock when he joined the Byrds for the 1968 masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But Yoakam arrived too late: Parsons was long dead, his onetime girlfriend Emmylou Harris had long since split for Nashville and the Sunset Strip had gone punk.

 

"I knew there had been this legacy of 'country-rock,' for lack of a better term, this hybrid kind of legacy that had been part of that culture," Yoakam says. "I went there thinking that maybe it would be easy to find. It wasn't. There wasn't a street, there weren't directions and a guide, a chamber of commerce guide as to how you could locate it."

Yoakam moved to L.A. when he was 20. He came of age in Sin City and looked back only to write about home -- about coal miners in Kentucky, about farm roads that lead to somewhere better, and how, one day, he'd like to be buried "under a blue Kentucky sky." But Yoakam often looked into the sunset and saw himself in the reflection: The song "Guitars, Cadillacs" off his first record was about "a naive fool that came to Babylon and found out that the pie don't taste too sweet."

The wonderful "Bury Me," from the expanded, Warners-released 1986 version of Guitars, Cadillacs, told of a boy who came to "this old town of sin" only to find "it's about to do me in." "I don't know how much I can stand," he wrote not long after moving to L.A. "With my knees on the street and my heart at their feet / I'm forced to beg from Satan's hand ... Now I've somehow turned astray / Yet I still see the truth in the teaching of my youth."

In L.A., Yoakam found his voice -- a nasal howl, actually, a cross between a yodel and a moan -- through which to tell his tales. But perhaps more important, in the honky-tonks of L.A. he found a partner who would help him become a country-music great. To hear producer Pete Anderson tell it, Dwight Yoakam's career was according to plan, mapped out before it even existed. It all corresponded to a scheme hatched one day as the two men sat in Anderson's ramshackle studio in the early 1980s. They dreamt of it all -- the flashy suits and the recording deals, the sharkskin boots and leather-seated convertibles, the money and the glory. They were going to be bad-ass rebel cowboys cruising down the Sunset Strip and into the history books, going zero-to-platinum in record time.

"Dwight and I did sit down and almost design his career," Anderson insists now. "It's the greatest movie ever written. I mean, here's a guy who couldn't keep his job as a courier sleeping on my floor in my no-room studio, and we said, 'What if we put out those records and get great press without a record deal? And what if we could get those Nudie suits, and wear sharkskin and get a James Dean image?' He didn't wear his hat when I first met him, but he said, 'We'll be big hillbilly rednecks.' If you were sitting in a room with us, you would have said, 'You're fucking crazy. That's never gonna happen.' "

Anderson met Yoakam during their days slumming around the San Fernando Valley honky-tonk scene. They were introduced through a mutual friend, a steel guitar player named Bob Bernstein. He gave Anderson a tape of Yoakam's songs; Anderson says he took the tape only to steal the moves of a guy who was performing with Yoakam at the time.

But he became enamored of the songs Yoakam had written. "I listened to Dwight's songs and realized he had great compositional skills," Anderson says. "He was influenced a lot by Lefty [Frizzell] and Merle [Haggard]. He was singing licks and hiccups and everything, and the lyrics were great, but he had no identity. It was like finding brand-new old songs the Stanleys had written."

Yoakam and Anderson became partners in the early '80s; Anderson would go on to produce every record Yoakam has released. He learned the songs and helped Yoakam put together a four-piece band, while Yoakam tried to get the band regular gigs, playing places where they didn't mind if you did your own songs every now and then.

In 1984, the pair began putting out those songs on their own and wound up with a deal with Warner Bros., which eventually gave Yoakam and Anderson the longest leash in country music. Where most country acts are forced by Nashville to write their hit singles over and over, Yoakam was allowed to tackle everything from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" to the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman R&B classic "Little Sister" to the Grateful Dead's "Truckin' " to Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic "Rocky Road Blues" to Elvis's cheesy anthem "Suspicious Minds." He became "country music" if "country" means only a mass of land; raised on that old radio, he knew how to speak a thousand languages.

 

"We had signed to Warners in the fall of '85, and 'Honky Tonk Man,' the first single, was just released," Yoakam recalls. "We did a release party for the album in March at the Roxy, and Emmylou Harris and John Fogerty came over, and so did [former Warner Bros. Records president] Lenny [Waronker]. He called me the next day -- I didn't know the man, I knew who he was, but I had never met him -- and he said, 'I want to tell you something: I have a feeling that you'll have a career that'll span many years.'

"At that point, I didn't know if I was gonna be able to pay the bills for many months, let alone have a career. I was just feeling, at 29 years old, lucky to even finally have just the fingerhold of a record deal afforded me. And he said, 'Over the course of time, I want you to remember something: Your voice is the only voice that matters.' "

By the time of This Time in 1993, Yoakam had found his voice. If the earlier records had been memories of home, This Time was the first look at what lay ahead -- a darker Dwight, the spurned lover whose ex-girlfriend was trashing him all over town, the honky-tonker who was comfortable in rock-and-roll leather. Such songs as "King of Fools" and "Home for Sale" were classic Buck Owens, and the rest were thoroughbred country, but "Fast as You" and "Wild Ride" hinted at the Yoakam aching to bust out of the gate. Even the arrangements had grown more spacious, strings and organs thickening the mix. It's the sort of record every artist wants to make once in a career, then spends a lifetime trying to live up to.

"When we got ready to do This Time, Dwight's voice had changed a little bit, and he had been with Sharon Stone and gone through some romantic things that caused him to write some different things," Anderson says. "He came up with songs like 'A Thousand Miles from Nowhere' and 'Fast as You.' They were very sarcastic songs, and he came of age as the new Dwight Yoakam. Gone was just an extension of that. They're where he's gonna go as an adult."

During a 1987 tour, Yoakam showed up in Buck Owens's Bakersfield offices unannounced. A grateful Owens returned the favor by coming to Yoakam's show -- and listening as the band performed a few Buck Owens classics; by the end of the night, Owens was on stage himself, born again in the adulation of acolytes.

"I think Dwight is an acquired taste," Owens says. "When people first hear him sing, if they don't know anything about him, they think, 'Hmmm.' But then they begin to find out this is who he is and this is what he does, being from Kentucky and from that area. Hell, he was a rock-and-roller in high school. He's got a picture where he's lying across a floor and got on some real green green pants and a shirt, and I said, 'You oughta burn that thing.' Dwight's a pretty damned good little performer. He knows a lot more about music and how to get things in that record than most anybody."

Owens says he gives Yoakam a hard time -- and not always to have fun -- about fooling around in the movies. To Owens, Yoakam is too talented a musician to waste his time acting; he needs to be writing, paying more attention to the business of music. Says Owens, "I used to tease him: 'We already had James Dean.' "

But Yoakam has not abandoned his craft -- far from it. Later this month, he'll release his first Christmas album -- So Come on, Christmas, which features a couple of new songs and some fascinating reworkings of old standards -- and he has already begun working on an album of all-new material. Indeed, he spent the months while shooting The Newton Boys writing his next record as well, on dozens of note pad sheets he kept stuck in a hotel-room drawer.

Yoakam hadn't even brought his guitar and amp with him to Austin when filming began in April. He had planned to keep his head in the script, but found rather quickly that the isolation of being away from home was too much to bear, so he started writing -- and within weeks, dozens of pages had poured out. He pulls the sheets from the drawer as though they were thousand-dollar bills, marvels at the volume, then shakes his head and grins.

"Being here, it's almost as if I'm a prisoner to circumstance, and my mind instinctively starts dealing with an alternative form of expression: music," he says. "And I tend to personally express myself through music in my own way. It's almost as if it's sort of a digression to being a kid at home, waiting to grow up. It's almost as if I'm waiting to graduate high school, to finally leave home, but now, at this point in my life, I'm a little more focused on what it is that I'm able to do as a means of expression. I wasn't writing heavily then, but I was certainly exploring music as a means of eclipsing my surroundings."

 

Yoakam likely will begin recording his next album in the fall, with a release date some time next spring. And when he and Pete Anderson go in to make the album, they will do so in the place where they have been recording almost since the very beginning -- at Studio B in the Capitol Records building at Hollywood and Vine. It was there that Owens and Haggard recorded many of their hits -- where Haggard laid down "Okie from Muskogee" and became an outlaw hero, much to his surprise, where Owens cut "Act Naturally" in 1963 and shot to the top of the charts. And it's there that Yoakam found his place in the history he so desperately chased when he went west 20 years ago.


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