Dwight Yoakam’s been playing country so long he qualifies as a statesman, but Second Hand Heart, his fourteenth album, doesn’t sound like he’s settling into a mid-career lull. With jangly guitars, bracing tempos, and rowdy vocals, Yoakam’s songs are as wild as they were in 1986, when he released his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The record follows 3 Pears, his 2012 album produced with Beck, and more than that record echoes the cowpunk of his past, when as a young songwriter he found a home for his Bakersfield-styled songs in the Los Angeles punk scene, alongside bands like X, the Blasters, Los Lobos, and Cruzados, who incorporated roots influences. Drawn out west from his youth in Kentucky and Ohio by the call of Emmylou Harris, his country music hero, Yoakam’s hardcore twang fit in among former punkers who “decided they wanted to explore country music as an expression,” Yoakam says, but it also drew on a long lineage of West Coast pop, Appalachian hillbilly music, and English skiffle. A potent blend he continues to explore with Second Hand Heart.
Aquarium Drunkard: There’s a lot of “California music” in the DNA of Second Hand Heart. Stuff like the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and of course, Buck Owens. Did you have that in mind as a template when you started working on this record?
Dwight Yoakam: Well, there was not a conscious concept of “California,” but by osmosis it’s going to be there. I’ve spent the greatest part of my life in California. I dropped out of Ohio State back in the ‘70s and headed west, as the admonition stated, you know: Go west. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, but “grew up” in California. I was 20 years old when I got here, and it’s part and parcel of me. California music itself is part of the American musical canon. It certainly was an influence to all of us listening to car radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. From the Beach Boys, through the explosion of country rock, the commercial California pop rock of the ‘70s, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and ultimately Fleetwood Mac…exponents of California music, if you will. I was curating some music the other day for a TV idea and the California thing came up. It’s Route 66. From the Dust Bowl to now it’s shaped culturally the larger part of the American 20th century. So it wasn’t anything conscious, it wasn’t like a concept. I think it’s an outgrowth of who I am as a Californian.
AD: Did you first settle in Los Angeles when you got to California in the ‘70s?
Dwight Yoakam: It was actually Long Beach for a couple years. [I came out with a buddy who] was coming out for a summer – or he wasn’t sure how long. He had family in Orange County and he wanted to possibly make a move. So as fate would have it he said, “You’re coming with me,” so I sold my car to my brother and took what little cash I had and jumped in a ’74 Volkswagen with him and we headed west. After a few months, he left and went home. I got a job at a loading dock at a department store and started working there, got a car, started driving up into L.A. proper, going to the Palomino and meeting musicians. I put a band together by late ’79, and was playing a five- sets-a-night gig at a place in the valley called the Corral, which was a classic kind of country nightclub in a working-class area of the valley.
I began to meet other like-minded musicians and putting a band together. Bob “Boo” Bernstein was playing steel for me, and he said, “You have to meet this guy, [producer] Pete Anderson. He’s playing another club in the west valley.” He had me come over and sit in with that band one night. That’s where Pete and I met. We began talking and responded very immediately to each other’s playing and singing. I started showing him my original material and we then formed the basis of the new unit…[which] evolved into that first band that was on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. [Yoakam’s 1986 debut]. And, along the way I did a play or two [laughs].
AD: Those early years really cemented your career.
Dwight Yoakam: Yeah, I guess so. I was songwriting when I was there in Long Beach, on my own, left to my own solitude and devices. I would write in one of my buddies’ kitchen. I just ran into him recently, a friend who let me borrow his Martin D-28 and play…I would sit for several hours a night and he’d just listen to me play at the other end of his place. He said they used to joke, “I dunno, he never really seems to finish a song. He’s just kind of singing different pieces of things in the kitchen.” [Laughs] I guess songwriting sounds like a song never finished to people that are listening from some difference. It doesn’t come out as a full song when you’re first singing it – you’re sneaking up on it every time.
AD: What was musical climate like then?
Dwight Yoakam: It was a great moment for American music, for pop rock. There was this rejection of polish that started happening with the punk rock scene that broke at first out of New York, and then out of Los Angeles. And there was the great English new wave that happened, with Rockpile, with Dave Edmunds, who I’d loved since I heard his first radio hit with “I Hear You Knocking,” that great guitar sound he had, and Nick Lowe’s exquisite writing style and production, giving us the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. That moment, there was this shift. We were going from the bloated success of pop rock in ‘76, ‘77, early ‘78 to this stripped, minimalist revival of lean, austere, pointed edges new wave. Tom Petty broke that same year! I remember I had that first album in Long Beach. That’s what was going on, and I was there germinating in that moment…kind of realigning my compass. I wrote “It Won’t Hurt” in that place on Long Beach and “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me.” A lot of my contemporaries were indulging in a lot of stuff and I was bearing witness to any manner of wild and reckless behavior and it was causing me to articulate it in song.
AD: You were witnessing it more than experiencing it?
Dwight Yoakam: I never drank. It never had an allure to me. I’d been raised in a very abstinent environment. The one smart thing I did in my life was I didn’t really succumb to that particular vice. I never really did drugs. Look, I was the guy that gave the debriefing to all my friends a day or so later. They’d say, “So what happened the other night?” “What was that going on, man?”…it was almost like living the Three Dog Night hit “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” 1977 in L.A., California, was absolutely like “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” [Laughs]
AD: Over the course of your career you’ve explored a lot of different sounds, but you’ve maintained the distillation of those roots –uniting those hillbilly traditions with pop and rock.
Dwight Yoakam: Yeah, you know: country music is mountain music from the Carter Family, the first family of country music. I was born about 25/30 miles from where the Carter Family were from in southwestern-most Virginia. Pike County, Kentucky, where I am from, borders Grundy, Virginia, where the Stanley Brothers came out of near Clinch Mountain. All that’s descended of Scot-Irish-Welsh folk music, from a century-and-a-half/two centuries earlier. Those droning third notes, those thirds that are droning out of Scots-Irish music. That’s part of what we know now as Appalachian music. The Everly Brothers had it and the Beatles were re-channeling that back to us. “Love Me Do” was their attempt to emulate the Everlys, and the Everlys were trying to do the Louvin Brothers. The Beatles reintroduced the American teenager to Appalachian music through their melodies and their harmonies. That’s why the Beatles spoke to me as much as Buck Owens.
AD: The new record explores a lot of what you’re talking about.
Dwight Yoakam: A lot of it began on the previous album, 3 Pears. You hear what I’m about to do with Second Hand Heart. It really begins before that, with Blame the Vain, the first album I produced on my own in my career. That was at the behest of [guitarist] Keith Gattis – I’d previously done the majority of everything with Pete Anderson. I began to evolve to this album. It really is a full circle. It goes back to Guitars, Cadillacs — it’s not so much the literalness of it, but it’s the intent. The immediacy of the music.
AD: It’s energetic. Your version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” sounds like it could be on a punk album.
Dwight Yoakam: There’s a very Ramones colliding with Bill Monroe feel to it.
AD: How often do people ask you for your opinions of modern country, what you hear on country radio?
Dwight Yoakam: Oh, every day. My answer is usually the same: I think it lives independent of whatever I think. It will have its ebb and flow as it’s always had. It’ll be dependent on the individual artists to take it where it’s going or reshape it. Right now, it’s probably at the youngest demographic state that it’s been since Elvis Presley. I’m talking about ‘54 and ‘55, and prior to that probably Hank Williams Sr., when he was a 20-something. People forget that his career was that of a 24-to-29-year-old. I mean, that’s a Beatle-aged guy. It’s younger than that now. I think that really began with Miley Cyrus leading to Taylor Swift and then people like Hunter Hayes. 19-year-olds are having chart hits, controlling the charts. People in their twenties are considered senior members. It’s now running the gamut from 15-to-25-year-olds, whereas the previous demographic, the previous 30 years, it had really been a 25-to-55 demographic. So, you know, that’s good. Right? There’s an entirely new generation that are at least addressing the cultural expression in some form. Look, is Sam Hunt the same as Randy Travis? Hell no. But who said he has to be? Without Ray Charles doing Buck Owens’ “Cryin’ Time,” we don’t have a whole new audience introduced through Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music to country music songs.
AD: I’m definitely drawn to more traditional country, but a lot of folks get hung up on “real country.”
Dwight Yoakam: Real’s a relative word.
AD: Every kind of music I like has at one point been defined as “not real” this or that, you know?
Dwight Yoakam: What’s “real” is what’s done in earnest, with any individual artist, with the purest sense of their true expression of themselves in that moment. It’s easy to get sucked in. Look, I was championing my heroes when I got a chance to talk, going back 30 some years ago. I was rabidly beating the drum for the traditional forms of country music that I thought had been overlooked and had been lost to a generation of musicians. I was thrilled to be able to do it again and perform it and have it be commercially successful and be able to make a living doing it. But it never meant to me that it had to be the only thing.
AD: There’s as much rock & roll, power pop, and rockabilly on Second Hand Heart as traditional country.
Dwight Yoakam: I love the Statler Brothers “Flowers on the Wall” from 1966; that wasn’t massively traditional. They went on to have a huge country music career in the 70s, but that was real in the sense that it was a true and pure delivery of a performance, of a musical expression.
AD: How do you stay in touch with that “realness”?
Dwight Yoakam: I dunno. I don’t know if there’s a method. I’m not proficient enough as an instrumentalist or musician to do anything that’s too outside the parameters of whatever it is I’m doing. [Laughs] I’m just fortunate I’m able to keep doing the music that inspires me to make more music. words/ j woodbury
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