Shedding the Blockers

Grantland Features: ‘Knuckles vs. Numbers’

Linsey Fields

The Last Man on Earth

Dwight Yoakam has sold millions of records, hung out with Johnny Cash, and dated Sharon Stone. He directed one of the weirdest Westerns ever. He even has his own brand of frozen food. Now, he’s just released one of his best LPs. So why is this renaissance cowpunk part of a dying breed?

“Why was I even talking about this?” Dwight Yoakam says to his sandy-colored Rios of Mercedes cowboy boots. “Do you remember? I don’t remember.”

It’s a late Sunday afternoon in early April, and the greatest country singer of the last 30 years is looking for a misplaced tangent inside his spacious office on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. We’re supposed to be talking about Second Hand Heart, his terrific new LP. But Yoakam’s brain— like his office, located in the Directors Guild of America building— is overwhelmed with historical artifacts; he struggles to stay on one topic for very long. One minute, he’s addressing the early days of computers in the ’50s (his mother was a key-punch operator). Next, he’s waxing rhapsodic about the fake sitar sound on the Box Tops’ 1968 hit “Cry Like a Baby.” Then, Yoakam declares that his biggest influences are designers Coco Chanel (because she transformed the culture by making fashion sportier and less formal) and Raymond Loewy, who created logos for Exxon, TWA, Nabisco, and the U.S. Postal Service, among many other brands.

“Why was I even talking about this?” produces no easy answers for a renaissance man.

I stare at the walls as Yoakam searches for his lost thread. There are gold and platinum records dating back to his 1986 debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., a landmark for the so-called neotraditional movement that also included George Strait, Randy Travis, and Steve Earle, and eventually spawned Garth Brooks; posters for films that he’s starred in, most notably Sling Blade and Panic Room, both of which called on him to play abusive jerks; and a photo of Dwight with Johnny Cash and Buck Owens that’s one Merle Haggard short of being the Mount Rushmore of California country music.

Yoakam’s interests extend beyond music and movies. On top of a TV opposite Yoakam that’s playing the Masters on mute is a stack of books on Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonardo da Vinci, and James McNeill Whistler. In the other room, a saddle sits on the floor. Presumably, the refrigerator in the nearby kitchen is stocked with wares from Bakersfield Biscuits, the food brand Yoakam founded in 1996. Clearly, this is a man who has a lot to pontificate on.

Yoakam set up headquarters at the DGA in 1997, not long after he started directing his own music videos, a sort of “poor man’s film school” that eventually led him to helm his first (and only) feature, 2000’s South of Heaven, West of Hell, one of the strangest and most star-crossed Westerns ever made, in which Yoakam plays the hero and Vince Vaughn and Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens head up a gang of bloodthirsty heavies.1 Yoakam estimates that he could own a building of his own for what he’s paid in rent over the years, but he can’t give up the view, which looks out over Sunset and the adjoining Hollywood Hills. Somewhere in those hills is Yoakam’s homestead, a 5,900-square-foot Spanish colonial mansion that he designed himself.

Yoakam with Buck Owens in 1988.

Paul Natkin/WireImage Yoakam with Buck Owens in 1988.

You don’t end up with a house like that without selling a whole lot of records. Yoakam’s commercial prime was from 1986 to 1993 — he had 14 top-10 country singles and five top-10 albums during that time, culminating with 1993’s triple-platinum This Time, arguably his best LP. Yoakam didn’t sell as well as Brooks, the era’s reigning big hat, nor did he really try. Brooks was a natural-born crossover artist who covered Billy Joel and aspired to arena-rock production values; Yoakam, meanwhile, had the instincts of a preservationist, reviving the career of his mentor Buck Owens by inviting him to duet on 1988’s mariachi-accented “Streets of Bakersfield,” one of Yoakam’s two no. 1 singles. But Yoakam became a pop star anyway, and he dated one of the era’s hottest starlets, Sharon Stone, though the relationship didn’t end amicably. Stone infamously likened kissing Yoakam to smooching “a dirt sandwich,” while Yoakam for years opted to plead the fifth on all matters Sharon.

Those days are far off in the 58-year-old Yoakam’s rearview. After decades of finding common ground between classic honky-tonk and old-time rock and roll, Yoakam has made Second Hand Heart, the rawest, most garage-y, and least-country-sounding record of his career, harking back to his early-’80s roots. Back then, he frequently shared stages with punk and indie bands like Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets.

Yoakam calls Second Hand Heart a “raucous reexploration of the purity of adolescent intent,” and that spirit carries over to the video for his latest single, the Nuggets-like “Liar.” He filmed it a few nights earlier amid a stretch of high-end boutiques situated on Sunset between the DGA office and Whisky a Go Go, the venerable rock club where Yoakam is scheduled to perform a record release show the following day. After rolling into our interview a fashionable 40 minutes late, Yoakam whipped out his phone to show off unedited footage of his band rocking out in the street within inches of passing traffic. A car almost clipped the neck of one band member’s bass guitar, which delighted Yoakam. It’s just the kind of youthful recklessness he sought to capture on his record.

“We’re the Stones in that Beggars Banquet through Sticky Fingers or Exile period,” he says of Second Hand Heart. “We did that with this record.”

All of a sudden, Yoakam remembers what he was trying to say earlier. It concerns In the Blink of an Eye, a book about film editing by the great Walter Murch, a winner of multiple Academy Awards whose credits include The Conversation, American Graffiti, and Apocalypse Now. In the book, Murch makes a pro-celluloid argument recently echoed by stalwarts like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson: Unlike digital, which is a static medium, film requires movement to be projected. This gives celluloid images a hypnotic quality that digital can’t achieve. It is the very thing that makes cinema feel like magic. 

Now that Yoakam is back on point, the passion is rising in his voice and he’s hitting the table for emphasis. As a musician and a filmmaker, Yoakam is a student of history and fiercely loyal to tradition.

“Remember how they outlawed subliminal advertising, where distinct frames were selling products back in the ’60s and early ’70s? Our subconscious is seeing each frame rise and dissolve, and because of that, it’s not a present-tense experience,” Yoakam says. “It’s a past tense or a future tense. It’s a premonition or a memory because we see it come from somewhere and go away to somewhere. It’s more dreamlike, because it’s subliminal.”

MSDSOOF EC041Phaedra Cinema

“Not a present-tense experience” is also an apt description of Yoakam’s music. He’s long strived to exist simultaneously in past and future tenses, with the proven certainty of the former complementing the freedom and openness of the latter. Born in Kentucky and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Dwight was the oldest of three kids born to a bookish mother, who made him read the King James Bible, and an ex-Army father with a penchant for hot-rodding. After high school he enrolled at Ohio State, but he lasted only two years before hightailing it to Nashville in 1976 with dreams of launching a music career. He didn’t last long there, either — Nashville was a songwriters’ town, but Yoakam wasn’t yet a songwriter. When he was still just a teenager, he was a rowdy nightclub singer equally versed in Appalachian music and the James Gang.

Yoakam soon looked to the West Coast as a potential home. His beacon was Emmylou Harris, one of the surviving links to L.A.’s country rock heritage, because of her association with the pioneering singer-songwriter Gram Parsons. So, at age 20, he lit out for Los Angeles and never looked back. For the next nine years — from 1977, when the Eagles were at their Hotel California zenith, to when he released his first record in the aftermath of the urban cowboy fad 2 — Yoakam worked as a truck driver to make ends meet while slowly working his way up as a performer. After starting out in the cowboy bars of the San Fernando Valley, Yoakam finally made it to the Sunset Strip thanks to the advent of “cowpunk,” a souped-up strain of country performed by rock groups like Lone Justice and the Knitters, an offshoot of the storied L.A. punk band X. It was precisely the opportunity that Yoakam needed in order to get seen by the right people and land a record contract with Warner Bros.

By then, Yoakam had his iconography — he wore his hat so low that it covered most of his face, exposing only the bottom of his nose, his mouth, and a sharp chin. That chin plus his tight Levi’s 517 jeans made Yoakam a sex symbol, though he was still enigmatic enough to appeal to guys. The band also looked good — Dwight dressed them in the finest Nudie suits, just like Buck did for his Buckeroos. The look suited the music, which was catchy and radio-friendly but never ephemeral or lighthearted. Like the best country singers, Yoakam could pack a lifetime of pain into two and a half breezy-sounding minutes. His first hit was a cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” a clear statement of purpose. But the best song on Guitars, Cadillacs is the ballad “It Won’t Hurt,” a quintessential tough-guy lament in which Yoakam croons that “even whiskey cannot ease your hurting me.” Even now, “It’s Won’t Hurt” sounds more like 1956 or 2015 than 1986. It’s indicative of a singular style that Yoakam has cultivated no matter what is going on around him.

“I just know that I have to be fearless enough to be interested in what I’m doing,” he says. “I don’t know if that qualifies as being fearless for anybody else. But I have to certainly be fearless enough to give a damn. And fearlessness is not always about doing the thing that appears to be the most forward-leaning. It can be fearless enough to rediscover things that seem passé or un-hip.”

Many of Yoakam’s subsequent songs betrayed his burgeoning instincts as a filmmaker — “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” sound like noir movie titles and unfold, lyrically and musically, with cinematic sweep. The combination of two-fisted music and vulnerable yet resolute masculinity forever endeared him to self-proclaimed outsiders like Eric Church, who invited Yoakam to open more than 30 dates on his arena tour in 2014.

“He’s got enough swagger and cool to take on all comers,” Church says. “I’m as big a fan today as I was when I first heard his music. This format needs what he does.”

In spite of Church’s good intentions, not all of his audience appreciated Yoakam. When I caught Church’s tour at Green Bay’s Resch Center last November, and watched Yoakam tear through his greatest hits while decked out in his shiniest rhinestones, the guy next to me paused between gulps of beer to gripe about “this twangy shit.”

“A lot of the audience was new to anything older than three or four years old in country music,” Yoakam admitted to Rolling Stone last month. “It was almost like walking out and playing early in my career when people were just getting to know me.”

Singer/Actor Dwight YoakamGeorge Rose/Getty Images

Here comes another digression: Yoakam loves Pocket Money, a sort-of Western from 1972 directed by Stuart Rosenberg — the guy who made Cool Hand Luke — and starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin.3 Pocket Money is one of those ’70s movies about quirky misfits where nothing much happens and it doesn’t matter because the guys doing nothing happen to be two of the coolest actors ever. Yoakam remembers dragging his buddies to see Pocket Money back in high school, and his buddies nearly killing him for it once the movie finally meandered its way to the credits. The memory inspires Yoakam to get out of his chair and act out his favorite scenes.

“Lee Marvin was just pricelessly wonderful in that,” he says. “At one point they are broken down there in Mexico and he’s got a 1960 Buick Electra convertible. I know because my aunt and uncle had one prior to them being able to get a Cadillac, which is a dream of all things hillbilly. Marvin was in a fedora and a suit the whole movie, and now he’s got the carburetor on the fender. He looks over at Newman and he does this thing with his fingers [snaps] and says, ‘That there, boy, that’s a Holley!’”

Yoakam bends over laughing.

“Who says that in a movie?”

Only a person who appreciates an act of wanton narrative neglect like Pocket Money could have made a movie like South of Heaven, West of Hell, which Yoakam cowrote, directed, and starred in. Like Pocket Money, South of Heaven quickly came and went upon its release, playing on just nine screens nationwide. Yoakam winced a bit when I brought it up, though he seemed gratified when I said I liked it.

“That’s what Murch says: The public doesn’t see anything outside the frame,” he says. “I’m proud of the film for that reason, in the moments that someone enjoys it.”

In the film, Yoakam plays Valentine Casey, a lawman raised by a family of outlaws who later go on a killing rampage, setting up a brutal confrontation. But South of Heaven wanders. A lot. The looseness is “deliberate and I don’t apologize for it,” he says. The point was to make a Peckinpah film in the style of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and in that respect Yoakam succeeded, though South of Heaven was also troubled, as many of Peckinpah’s films were.

What I like about South of Heaven is what’s happening on the margins of the largely incomprehensible story. There’s an endless dinner scene that can be charitably likened to Samuel Beckett, where Thornton appears to channel Marlon Brando’s loony performance in The Missouri Breaks while Zevon squints blindly without his glasses into the distance. Then there’s the part when Yoakam takes then-girlfriend Bridget Fonda in a hot air balloon — on the commentary track, Yoakam and his crew members reveal that the filming of this sequence coincided with news that South of Heaven’s financing had suddenly collapsed, a body blow to the already threadbare $4 million production. They had to literally scrounge for film to complete the scene. “If it’s in focus, it’s gold!” somebody says wearily as Yoakam and Fonda float over New Mexico.

“I forgot we did a commentary for that scene,” Yoakam says sheepishly. “It was a wonderful experience and simultaneously one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. And not an easy thing to survive.”

Yoakam’s hat is off now, revealing wispy strands of graying blond hair losing ground to a growing bald patch. The hat is Yoakam’s Superman cape — taking it off is a way for him to step out of his persona. (He almost never wears a hat in his films, though he does don a ski mask in Panic Room.) For a while, it seemed like Yoakam was drifting from music altogether. He’s never stopped making good records, but he’s done it less and for a smaller audience in the past decade. His 2003 album, Population Me, was his first after leaving Warner Bros. His next record, 2005’s Blame the Vain, includes a song called “I Wanna Love Again” that Yoakam says was “really about my love of music. I wanted to know that again.”

Other than releasing a tribute record, 2007’s Dwight Sings Buck, the year after Buck Owens’s death, Yoakam stuck mostly to touring casinos for the next seven years. It took some prodding from two high-profile friends, Beck and Kid Rock, to get Yoakam back in the studio. Beck coproduced two songs for what became 2012’s Three Pears, including the rollicking “A Heart Like Mine” and one of Yoakam’s prettiest songs, “Missing Heart,” while Kid Rock helped finish off the lovely lead-off track, “Take Hold of My Hand.” Another trusted confidante, the legendary record executive Lenny Waronker, brought Yoakam back to Warner Bros. and acted as the album’s executive producer. Three Pears wound up being one of Yoakam’s best. Second Hand Heart parlays that record’s spirit of renewal.

“I never stopped being interested in music,” Yoakam now insists. “I just had to find the music I was interested in.”

Warner Music Group Hosts Annual GRAMMY Celebration - InsideImeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

The next time I see Dwight Yoakam, he’s onstage for Second Hand Heart’s release show at the Whisky. He’s back rocking the hat and the Levi 517s, and the band plays loud enough to fill a venue 10 times larger. In the audience there’s a mix of redneck loyalists and Hollyweird rubberneckers. I see wannabe cosmic cowboys decked out in homemade ersatz Nudies mingle with overweight platinum blondes with painted-on beauty marks. They go crazy when Dwight turns his back and does his little heel-toe-heel-toe shimmy, which looks a little like Axl Rose’s snake dance.

The only other record release show Yoakam played was a couple of blocks down at the Roxy, 29 years ago, for Guitars, Cadillacs. That was a special night. Waronker made sure that two of Yoakam’s heroes, Emmylou Harris and John Fogerty, were in attendance. The record business was simpler (though not necessarily better) back then. Having a label like Warner Bros. in your corner meant a lot. Now, Yoakam knows that getting Second Hand Heart noticed will be an uphill battle. So, instead of John and Emmylou, he’s being watched at the Whisky by cameras from Yahoo, who are filming the concert for a live stream.

“It’s harder and easier,” Yoakam says of the promotional process. “It was certainly easier when there were three main media outlets, in terms of television, at the beginning of my career. There was very little real-time anything. So things could be much more planned, and I think executed a little more … ” He pauses. “In some ways it was executed with a little more dignity and grace.”

The fellas and ladies squeezed into the Whisky love hearing oldies like “Little Ways” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” but Yoakam also makes sure to work in plenty of new material for the onlookers on the Internet. Second Hand Heart could be described as a loosely structured song cycle about California, or maybe an idea of California as it existed in Yoakam’s mind when he was stuck in Nashville and daydreaming about the West Coast while listening to Emmylou Harris’s Pieces of the Sky. Songs like “She” and the title track echo the Byrds, the original kingpins of the Sunset Strip rock scene in the ’60s. “Believe” also has that distinctive Byrdsian jangle, though the vocal melody is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” which Yoakam doesn’t deny but says wasn’t intentional. The closest Yoakam comes to conventional country is “Off Your Mind,” a hilariously sullen taunt of an ex-lover who’s moved on to somebody else. Yoakam sings it like Owens would have, stretching out the vowels in a way that conveys both self-pity and self-deprecation.

Yoakam hasn’t played many of these songs live yet, and the rustiness shows. “She” is one of Second Hand Heart’s sturdiest rockers, but from the jump, the song sounds hamstrung and out of tune. Later, when Yoakam invites a coterie of label employees back to his tour bus for a quick round of hugs and photos,4 he confirms that he couldn’t hear himself for much of the concert. During “She,” he knew immediately that he’d stepped in it but had no choice but to muddle through. After the Eric Church arena tour, Yoakam had to readjust for a smaller stage, where the monitors are basically on top of you.

The Whisky show couldn’t quite top an impromptu performance from the prior afternoon back at the office. It started with yet another deep thought, this time about being part of a disappearing generation that witnessed a now-vanished America firsthand. Yoakam says he and fellow travelers like Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, and Steve Earle were “hillbilly kids born between Nevada and New Jersey” who were around for both the beginning of rock and roll and the last hurrah of artists like Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams Sr. All of us live on the edges of worlds that are being erased, but for Yoakam, those were his worlds, and he’s trying to keep a piece of the old one alive.

“All things evolve and then it’s incumbent upon the [next] generation of artists to explore and educate themselves about what they’re doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it evolved to what they’re doing,” he says. “Listen to [Monroe] doing ‘T for Texas, T for Tennessee.’ Or ‘Mule Skinner Blues’ — man, the drummer rock and rolls right there. [Sings] ‘Good morning, captain. Good morning to you, sir. Do you need another mule skinner? Down on your new mud run.’ Man. That’s what that is, right? That’s rock and roll in fucking spades.”

I had no intention of arguing with Yoakam, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have caught him before his next brainstorm. 

This piece has been updated to remove an erroneous assertion that Dwight Yoakam wrote “Long White Cadillac,” which was written by Dave Alvin and later covered by Yoakam.

Filed Under: Music, Dwight Yoakam, country, cowpunk, Second Hand Heart, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., Lenny Waronker, beck, Warner Bros., Billy Bob Thornton, Walter Murch

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden