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A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
Long before I committed myself to this project, which would become a labor of love—an opportunity to immerse myself in the music and rediscover the multidimensional richness of it—I considered Dwight Yoakam an artist of singular accomplishment. Though there are mainstream country artists who have sold far more than the twenty-five million recordings that Yoakam claims, no other has reached those commercial successes by following anything close to Dwight's elevated career path; he has taken artistic chances, attracted a diverse audience, and garnered critical plaudits from the rock world.
On the other hand, while there may be alternative-country, roots-rocking, and kindred-spirit artists who remain revered beyond the mainstream, none can match Yoakam's combination of uncompromising vision of musical integrity and level of popular success. Whatever promises about forging a common spirit for rock and country have been made by cult favorites such as Gram Parsons or Lucinda Williams—or Jason and the Scorchers, or Joe Ely, or dozens more who have found a wellspring of creative revitalization in roadhouse tradition—Dwight Yoakam has fulfilled. In spades. He has somehow become the most formula-defying popular artist in the most formula-dependent genre of popular music.
So, there are two questions that a book such as this should ask and perhaps even answer. Why hasn't anybody else been able to do what Dwight has done—use a traditional-roots-alternative base as a springboard to multiplatinum mainstream popularity? And why hasn't Yoakam been celebrated more for the singularity of his achievement?
Various terms have been coined to describe the musical chasm that Yoakam straddles: country rock, cowpunk, roots rock, alt-country, insurgent country, No Depression, et al. The conundrum encountered by artists who fall into that divide has always been "too rock for country, too country for rock." Yet rather than compromising or diluting his musical impulses at the extremes, Yoakam has pushed the envelope.
When he jumped from the L.A. roots-punk circuit into the national spotlight, he was too country for contemporary country and he rocked with an unbridled intensity beyond most contemporary rock. It's fitting that he first attracted notice among the roots-punk firebrands, sharing fans at Los Angeles clubs with the likes of the Blasters (whose Dave Alvin was one of his first important champions), X, and Los Lobos.
Those who saw him in those formative years insist that they knew even then that not only would he be a big star, he would be a mainstream country star. Whether at the shitkicking Palomino or the punk-rocking Club Lingerie, even if the crowd was no more than a dozen or two, Dwight displayed the chops, charisma, and vision that would command large stages of halls filled with country fans in just a year or two. Heck, it was practically the same set.
His musical progression in the years since has reinforced his singular spirit. Where he initially sounded like the most retro of artists—a hillbilly, honky-tonkin' anachronism with one foot in the 1950s—he soon established himself as a visionary unbound by era, an artist who could title an album Tomorrow's Sounds Today and mean it.
He accomplished all this during a period in which contemporary country has become a euphemism for "soft rock," a musical territory where Yoakam's harder edges will never fit. While today's country owes more to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac than it does to Hank, Merle, and Loretta, its fan base continues to self-identify as country. Go to a country concert and you'll find it dominated by those who listen to country radio, buy country CDs (or download country cuts), maybe even join fan clubs for country artists. They rarely find much of interest on the other side of the contemporary pop-rock divide (and even less in the hip-hop and gangsta rap that have come to dominate pop).
Yet when Yoakam's music was played, primarily, if not exclusively, on the country airwaves, his concerts would attract plenty of fans that never listened to contemporary country radio and rarely went to other country concerts. His artistry was not merely covered but featured and championed in rock publications such as Rolling Stone, which typically paid scant attention to mainstream country.
Many of the artists who might be considered Yoakam's contemporaries—such as Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett—some of whom were initially marketed as mainstream country hitmakers, now often reach listeners over the airwaves of National Public Radio. Yoakam no more fits there than a honky-tonk bull in a broadcasting china shop.
As I began my initial research for this book, I was blindsided by a couple of revelations. The first is that there has never been any previous biography of Yoakam or book-length study of his music, not even a glorified fan-gossip quickie. This book was intended from the start to be more like an extended piece of music and culture criticism than a comprehensive chronicling of Yoakam's life. It offers lots of analysis of and context for Yoakam's artistic progression, and little to nothing of what Sharon Stone said about him, what veejay Duff thought about him, or what his high school teachers remembered about him. Yet I was pretty amazed to find the field of Yoakam biography wide open, to discover that even at the peak of Dwight's celebrity and commerciality, no one had tried to capitalize on his popularity with a book.
By contrast, the life of the late Gram Parsons, whose legacy looms large decades after his death despite a career that was commercially negligible—certainly in comparison with Yoakam's—has spawned a half dozen biographies (as well as prominent appearances in other books, where he is discussed as seminal inspiration for the shift the Byrds made toward country-rock, a buddy to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and a mentor for Emmylou Harris). Do a book search for Dwight and all you'll find are songbooks, sheet music, and a collection of lyrics printed as poetry (and titled A Long Way Home, which is an album title I would have considered borrowing for this book if Yoakam hadn't already reappropriated it).
Another surprise awaited when I searched the archives of No Depression, the magazine where I long served as a senior editor and which covered the alt-country movement more comprehensively (and, dare I say, more incisively) than any other publication. Expecting to find at least one extensive career piece on Yoakam, if not a spate of cover stories, I was dumbfounded to discover that there was nothing beyond short album reviews.
The archive gives no indication whatsoever that Yoakam is one of the most commercially successful and artistically compelling musicians to emerge from the movement that also spawned No Depression, which was supposed to be the genre's Bible. In the pages of ND, Dwight had been treated more like an afterthought than a standard-bearer.
I don't mean to bite the hand that fed me (cheese and crackers, but still) or to criticize the editorial acumen of my friends Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock, the magazine's co-founders. (And I should acknowledge here that Peter was responsible for bringing this book to the University of Texas Press. Thanks again, Peter.) They were committed to drawing attention to artists deserving a whole lot more of it, and maybe they felt that Dwight didn't need the help—that he was already too popular to classify as alt-country (whatever that is). And there were always issues of timing, access, and other contenders competing for cover stories. But I'd counter that such a huge hole in No Depression's archives—it's as if Rolling Stone had all but ignored the Rolling Stones—suggests that it's quite possible for an artist who has received platinum albums and critical raves to remain underappreciated.
Which raises another question: Why? I'd be tempted to say that the big gulf between Yoakam's achievement and the acknowledgment of it is inexplicable, but the writing of this book suggests, if anything, that there are too many explanations, a confluence of issues that are complex, contradictory, confounding, and often tinged with irony. There are considerations of authenticity, purity, persona, the essence of country music, and the calculations of the music business (a business that some alt-purists treat as if it shouldn't exist) that are easier to raise than to resolve.
So let's preview some issues that we'll more fully explore in the following chapters:
His popularity. There is a prejudice that if that many people like him, especially that many country music fans, he can't be that good. While the whole roots-trad-alt-country corral is filled with mongrel music, there's no purist quite like an alt-country purist. (Except maybe blues purists—self-appointed Caucasian arbiters of what qualifies as authentic black expression.) And when an artist or a band finds greater popularity and wider renown by stretching their creative wings—be it Dwight Yoakam or Wilco—they face a backlash from those who once championed them, many of those fans (in Yoakam's case) strongly believing that anything that's on mainstream country radio must be dreck. Or at least compromised.
From the very start, Dwight Yoakam has approached the music business as a business—one that he has done his best to outsmart, one in which he has pursued commercial success—and he has never claimed otherwise. Purists see failure to achieve such success as a merit badge of musical integrity and a sign of their own superiority of taste. The fact that Yoakam has moved more units than so many artists of the alt-country movement combined confirms to some that he sold his soul to Devil Commerce.
Yet Dwight came of age when some of the best-selling music was also the best: the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones, Creedence. Even Elvis. And his formative country influences were hitmakers all. Limiting his ambition to cult fandom was never part of the game plan.
His authenticity. When Yoakam began drawing raves in the Los Angeles alternative press, it was almost as if he were a coal-dust baby, born to country music, as innocent to big-city ways as a latter-day Beverly Hillbilly. And there's no question that Yoakam played the part and reaped the rewards, as the press emphasized his birth in Pike County, Kentucky, while downplaying the facts that his family had moved to Columbus, Ohio, before he turned two and that he'd briefly attended the Ohio State University (as Buckeye natives call it) with interests in philosophy and history before heading west to find a career in show business. They also often failed to mention that he'd been just as involved in theater as he had in music in high school, and he earned a role in a Long Beach stage production before hitting the Southern California bar circuit.
Despite his occasionally exaggerated drawl and a name that seemed to combine "yokel" with "hokum," Yoakam is nobody's rube. He wasn't a backwoods '50s hillbilly but a media-savvy child of the television generation. It's instructive that when I asked Dwight about early musical inspirations, he quickly mentioned the Monkees, the ultimate pop fabrication. Yet watching the Monkees on TV was a far more "authentic" musical experience for a ten-year-old Ohio child in the mid-1960s than listening to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
Purists might denigrate Dwight as a poseur, which is rock-crit French for "phony," but he's far more authentic as a sum of his influences and inspirations, a reflection of his place and time, than a retro anachronism could ever be. And the growth he showed with albums that would employ strings, horns, and background vocals reflected an artistic expansion that restricting himself to musical anachronism would have denied. The results, on albums that are Yoakam's most creatively ambitious, are timeless in their surrealism, like a honky-tonk dreamscape as directed by David Lynch.
So, why are the 1940s and 1950s inherently more "authentic" than the 1980s and 1990s? And didn't that cowboy hat make old Hank Williams himself something of a poseur?
His performing persona. He had one. From the start. Even if only a few listeners were in the bar, barely paying attention, Dwight looked sharp, and his band played sharp, unlike so many other acts that took the stage as if they'd just rolled out of bed and had barely bothered to tune. Despite some of the places he played or the crowds who supported him, there was never anything vaguely "cowpunk" about Yoakam except the livewire intensity of the performance.
As Yoakam become more popular, it became increasingly apparent that female fans liked him a lot. This meant male critics felt compelled to make some reference, usually disparaging, to his skintight jeans and twitching butt, which he turned toward the audience too often for the comfort of some. Though sexuality has long been a driving force in popular music, males tend to find qualities with such appeal to females to be spurious, suspect, all sizzle and no steak. (As if the meatiest steak couldn't also sizzle.)
I learned this lesson instinctively before I knew anything about popular music. My babysitter in the mid-1950s loved Elvis Presley, so I instinctively felt compelled to dislike him. Not because I had a thing for my teenage babysitter, a decade older than me, but I perceived that attraction as some kind of threat. Whatever girls liked, especially that much, was yucky.
Dwight has always stressed the necessity of putting on a show. A flashy one. One that would drive the girls wild. Just like he'd seen Elvis Presley do. On television.
His Pete problem. No successful musical artist has ever done it on his own. There is always a manager, producer, band mates, maybe all of the above, who deserve a share of the credit. Yet with Dwight, his crucial collaborations with guitarist-producer-bandleader Pete Anderson present a particular challenge in the credit-where-credit-is-due department.
Was Pete equally responsible for Yoakam's success? Or more responsible, a sonic Svengali pulling the strings? Dwight had the songs, the voice, the look; Pete had the chops and the sound that would showcase the artist at his best in both the studio and onstage, elevating the role of lead guitar as the singer's essential musical foil. Before Pete, Dwight's career lacked momentum, and his music lacked both edge and focus. The creative tension in their partnership sparked some sort of magic that neither has (thus far) been able to replicate on his own.
Nine years older than Yoakam, Anderson definitely served as a musical mentor. But they suffered a bitter split following 2003's Population: Me, when the guitarist sued the singer for lost revenues after Dwight decided to recoup some financial losses by touring without a Pete-led band. Neither has discussed the other much in print since then, until now.
Even so, when I started this book, Yoakam's camp would have preferred that I didn't talk to Anderson, fearing that whatever account he might provide would stir controversy, drawing the wrong kind of attention in order to spur sales. I assured them that I had no intention of writing a book exploiting any tension between Dwight and Pete. And I haven't. But Dwight himself made it plain in our interviews just how integral Pete had been to his musical development, and it would have been journalistically irresponsible to try to tell this story without attempting to incorporate Anderson's perspective.
Ultimately, Dwight and Pete, interviewed independently, had little that was negative to say about each other, and both expressed considerable pride in the music they'd made together. They collaborated for a couple of decades, almost half a lifetime in Yoakam's case. Plenty of marriages don't remain as vital for nearly that long. But, as one of Dwight's songs puts it, "Things change."
So, just as a biography of Elvis Presley must encompass Colonel Tom and a book about John Lennon needs to include Paul McCartney (talk about your bitter splits!), this is a book about Dwight Yoakam—how his music originated, how it has progressed, what it has accomplished. And it's about a legacy that doesn't stop here, for the artist has too many ideas and too much ambition to rest on his laurels for long. Like a lot of those who follow Yoakam—critics and fans alike—I eagerly await the next chapter.