There are few artists like Dwight Yoakam, a musician who has always skirted the strict guidelines of what an artist has to be. Is he country? Definitely. His songs ruled the country charts in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Is he rockabilly? Without a doubt. But he’s also one of those roots-based, twang artists that a lot of the rock and indie crowd can get behind. That has had to do as much with his persona and career choices as it has his music, which itself has always kept one foot in the traditional side while trailblazing through a genre that can find itself stale more times than not. Yoakam is also the accomplished actor, and when we caught up with him backstage at this year’s Forecastle Festival, it was right after his latest on-camera moment in CBS’s Under the Dome.
Paste: You’re back in front of the camera again, this time playing Lyle Chumley in a new Stephen King series.
Yoakam: Oh, Lyle Chumley. I didn’t come up with the name. Didn’t pick the name. I would not have picked Mr. Pink either, for those that have an obscure reference to Quentin Tarantino’s earliest film. Mr. White was already taken. That’s why I’m Chumley.
Paste: And it’s called Under the Dome.
Yoakam: Under the Dome. Led to me actually for the first time ever blurring the lines. I sang in a scene. A Capella. Hopefully we did justice to John Fogerty’s great song and lyric of “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”
Paste: You’ve released it as a single, too, right?
Yoakam: Well after I sang it I said, “You know, I’ve done this now live and in person on CBS, in character.” I tried to maintain, you know, a guy kind of singing to himself at that point in his jail cell scene. But I thought “I’ve never touched a Creedence song to cover.” I just think they’re too iconic.
Paste: This is really perfect though. I mean, these days Fogerty lets everybody touch those Creedence songs.
Yoakam: Now! I mean, still, I don’t know that we should, but I went in and the band and I, I think I came up with a personal arrangement of it.
Paste: It sounds quite different from the original. I really like how you said that, that you don’t know if you should touch it. As an artist, you still really care about the art, because it can be seen as sacrilege for stepping on sacred ground.
Yoakam: Well, it’s like I’ve done in my career. I started out with the first hit I ever had covering Johnny Horton with “Honky Tonk Man.” But they were usually things that were not the iconic, classic, sonic fingerprint of an artist, you know. The Beatles did that a lot. They did it very well and then the Stones, where they didn’t take something that was so associated with somebody that you’ve kind of robbed that artist.
Paste: For example, you didn’t pick a song like “Fortunate Son.”
Yoakam: No, I did not. I didn’t do “Bad Moon Rising.” And when I did Buck’s album, one of the songs that we deliberately left off was “I’ve Got a Tiger By The Tail.” My homage to Buck early on in my career had been the song “Little Ways” that I wrote, you know, with the spirit of Buck Owens kind of in my head. And “Tiger By The Tail” has that kind of exaggerated performance of “Ah-I’ve! Gaught! Ah!…” and I thought, you know, that’s one we should leave, I should leave, to only Buck’s voice and allow him to have. And with John, “Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a great one. It was written into the screenplay, or the script of that episode that they wanted that character singing that due to some things that go on, for those that haven’t seen it or are watching it, if you’re binge-viewing Under the Dome or watching it on demand, it has to do with some rain that’s going on inside that Dome. And in addition to the Horton song, having said all this, I will now contradict myself and point out that I did cover “Ring of Fire” on the first album, on the EP, of Johnny Cash in 1986. And we bookended that on the 3 Pears album of the bonus track of “Ring of Fire” with the other version of it.
Paste: I feel like in ‘86 though, Johnny hadn’t had his renaissance yet.
Yoakam: No, and it was 25 years after the fact. But again, I do think that it’s a matter of also making it exist within your own personality as a musician.
Paste: There is such a debate right now about where country music is. It seems more than ever people are asking, “What is it, and where is it going?”
Yoakam: You know what, country is ultimately all American musical expression. Americana is all-encompassing. Mumford & Sons were in the Americana camp four or five years in when they were at the awards, given an award. And last year 3 Pears won for, you know, album of the year.
Paste: A lot of people like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle, they’re really doing something great, a bit more traditional. And then you turn on Hot Country Radio, and it’s more of that songwriting made under fluorescent lights.
Yoakam: But I think that things are evolving out of one paradigm for delivery of music and how we all listen to music. We’re not completely transitioned over the threshold to the new paradigm for it.
Paste: Do you have a problem with what’s going on? That it’s more pop than what we thought country was?
Yoakam: Long ago, I thought it was too distracting to really be bothered with what somebody else was doing that I didn’t care for. It’s a matter of taste. I mean, I don’t like everything that’s guitar rock. I don’t like all jazz. Some jazz I love, like Chet Baker and Miles Davis, but there’s some others that’s not up my alley. I think it’s imperative for an individual artist to not really concern themselves with what everybody else is doing. Just try and make music that’s interesting for me to listen to.
Paste: Back to your music then, and I want to congratulate you on this. Rarely does an artist take the chance of releasing a second greatest hits that doesn’t crutch on their first greatest hits. You’ve just released a best-of that’s taken from a completely different part of your career than the first one.
Yoakam: It just spoke to another period, you know? And it was kind of a volume, if you will.
Paste: And so now you’re going to do The Outsiders tour.
Yoakam: Yes I am! I’m on that! Eric [Church] was very gracious and invited me.
Paste: It being called The Outsiders tour, you know your image. You’ve been called many things, and maybe people bestow image on you, but you’re aware of it. That’s always been one of my favorite things about rock and roll and the whole idea of it, when you took David Bowie and you put him up there as Ziggy Stardust. It’s taking some extra time to put thought into it. And maybe I’m reading too much into it…
Yoakam: [singing] Ground control to Major Tom…
Paste: That could be your next cover.
Yoakam: “Rebel, Rebel” is still my favorite. That and “Golden Years.” And “Heroes.” See, you can’t stop once you start.
Paste: But it is something about knowing what your image is. I see a lot of new artists that I don’t think they take the time to really get into that part of things.
Yoakam: Well you know, I think the thing, whether it’s Bowie or…those things are born out of natural…I think there’s an earnestness to Bowie. That sounds, on the surface, ridiculous, but it was earnestly who he was exploring. He himself as that guy out of London in ‘67, 8, 9. And I was fortunate enough in meeting him at one point to ask him about Mark Bolan’s influence and T. Rex. He performed on records with T. Rex. You can see the line of that influence and that, you know, T. Rex being the first great glam rock but still being rooted in blues guitar.
Paste: Where everything was coming from at that point. If you’re a small kid picking up a guitar at that era…
Yoakam: Simple riff rock. And everything I did was born out of, whether it was the hat or the boots, I mean it was what I was wearing, you know, and it was all a continuum. And then when we started, when I had the means to do it, I really wanted to pay tribute to the culture of country music that I was born into in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, which was the buckaroo look. Kind of the, as I say, the state fair jackets with rhinestones to the degree that would make Walt Disney vomit.
Paste: But still cool in that sort of over-the-top way, in that sort of Ziggy way I guess.
Yoakam: Again, it’s very unique. You know, everything in cowboy couture is born of utilitarianism. You know, the heel of the boot has to do with the undershot riding heel was that so that the boot didn’t slip into the stirrup any more than at the ball of the foot. The yolks on sleeves and on jackets, the piping that rockabilly kids wear, that piping, you know, it’s for the gauntlets where they would brand. For branding irons and not to get burned. It was leather gauntlets, and they would use the same thing, leather pieces over their shirts. And they began, when rodeo culture, you know, Wild West shows in the late 19th century and early 20th century began to take hold, as part of show business. They incorporated that and showed the silhouette imagery of working cowboys’ utilitarian wardrobe. And it became part of the culture, and I thought, “You know what, this is the birthright to this musical form.” And the Stones did it, they wanted the nudies and everything, and Keith had a bolero jacket cut with rhinestones, and he had shirts that were satin.
Paste: They had their country album.
Paste: But the fact that you also come from Kentucky, that helps?
Yoakam: It doesn’t hurt. I was born into that culture, although that wasn’t the cowboy culture. It was rural Appalachia, and it’s all still interconnected. Just across the state lines from where the Carter family came from. Ralph Stanley and Carter Stanley. You know, the first family of country music in terms of what they created in the ‘20s was Maybelle Carter—you know Mother Maybelle Carter and AP Carter— so that is the reason I was born into it.
Paste: I don’t think we’ve mentioned it. I mean, here we are in Louisville, Ky. for the Forecastle Festival.
Yoakam: Louisville and the Ohio River.
Paste: So here you are, in a way back home again.
Yoakam: In a manner of speaking. My father spent the last 30 years of his life here, and I still have family here. My brother lives here also, and I’ve had extended family here over the years.
Paste: Did you ever have that moment in your life when you were like…I think we all have a moment where we get embarrassed about our past and we’re like, “I have to get away from it.”
Yoakam: No, no, no because I moved away literally from my familial experience so young. I dropped out of Ohio State at 20 years old and moved to the West Coast. I’d been to Nashville the previous year and back and forth, and in those years it wasn’t really what was going to deliver me to realize any ability to make a living doing and succeed at being a musical performer. So the beacon for me at that point was really—in a singular sense—was Emmylou Harris on the West Coast. And then peripherally Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. I was beginning to really be influenced by Merle’s adult writing and Buck’s effervescence and the style of things. And then I got to the West Coast in ’77 and knew fairly quickly that it was going to be home. A musical home, and artistic home, and that’s what it became.
Paste: It worked out.
Yoakam: And John Prine’s influence on my life musically was great because he had written those first couple of albums in ’73, ’74 about the time I was in college and then got out. And that first John Prine album with “Paradise.” It taught me a lot about the pertinence in my life and as an artist that my family’s legacy and lineage would have. So I began to write about those people that I knew in my life, and I think one of the things that allowed me to do that was being in such a disparate environment from where I grew up. I remember the day that I left Louisville. I had been here visiting my dad; this was 1982. I had been down in Nashville pitching some songs, and I was driving his truck up to Ohio to visit my mom. She was there in Columbus. And I crested I-71 where it breaks to drop down at Covington and Newport, Kentucky into Cincinnati, and it’s a beautiful vista from that hill on I-71 as you go. And daylight out through there, and it was just the right time of day, and the river was reflecting.
Paste: That’s when you fall in love with it all over again.
Yoakam: I wrote the song “South of Cincinnati” after I got back to California thinking about that drive, that day, seeing that river, seeing those places that were so much a part of my childhood. I mean, that river we crossed many times. Tail-light babies headed back to Kentucky you know, from Ohio, Michigan license plates. On that, further east, over by Ashland route 23 out of Columbus, Ohio. It went from Detroit down through the center part of the state and crossed over to Ashland and would drive what they now dub “the country music highway.”
Paste: I feel like we need to put a mile marker there for your song, too.
Yoakam: Well, they have, further down near Floyd county. They established the country music highway with the Judds in Ashland, Billy Ray Cyrus in Flatwoods I think and Ricky Skaggs near Louisa. And then Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gale in the next county south of that. Myself in Floyd County. And then Patty Loveless in Pike county. She was born in Jenkins.
Paste: What a club.
Paste: I do want to ask at least before we go, there is going to be a new record coming soon, right?
Yoakam: Yeah, we’re in the midst of the back and forth.
Paste: Back on Warner Bros.?
Yoakam: Warner Bros. Burbank actually.
Paste: It’s funny how it all kind of comes around. So we’re going to get something new? I mean, does this kind of leave off where you did last time with 3 Pears? That was kind of your cool kid moment, you know?
Yoakam: We’ll see. That was really full circle. If you look at the first EP and the scene that I broke out of they were referring to loosely as cowpunk. That album, I really probably did the first cowpunk track, you know. I just kind of let the songs take me on a journey, each three- to five-minute run that we do.