Even though our 41st issue has officially hit newsstands and our 40th Issue Spectacular has retired to the dept of backissues, we've still got more extended features to let out of the bag. To some of us here at FADER HQ, Dwight Yoakam is a lifelong hero - we grew up on cassettes of all his albums and haven't been able to go more than a week or two with getting a fix ever since. Imagine how psyched we were, then, when we first spent time with him after a Conan appearance around the release of his latest album Blame the Vain in the summer of 2005 and, in half an hour or less, for no other reason than because he wanted to, he ran us on a conversational journey out of the hills of Appalachian Kentucky where he grew up and into Ohio, then paused to give us the entire history of all genres of American roots music (without forgetting our friends from the British Invasion) through the lens of the 1950's radio of his childhood, then brought us out to Bakersfield, CA and a few miles south to Los Angeles to paint a picture of the scene there that gave birth to his career, beginning in the early ’80s. After all that, needless to say, we knew who to call when we were concocting the celebration that was our 40th issue. After the jump, read the un-edited transcript of our absolutely crazy, long, two part conversation with Yoakam, where we touch on everything from Vince Vaughn, Waylon, Nudie Suits and how to block a cowboy hat, to insane amounts of music history, Dwight's film career, and much, much more. In the meantime, check Blame the Vain as well as the double disc anniversary re-release of his benchmark debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, etc etc, which just came out Tuesday (Note: we also just found out that you can text "Dwight" to 7466* for "ringtones and more," which has blown our minds but please believe we are about to do it AT THIS TIME). Brace yourselves, friends, then read on.
I was recently talking to Louie Perez from Los Lobos for this 40th issue we’re working on and he was talking about the early days, in the early ’80s, when you and Los Lobos were both sort of emerging.
Yeah, absolutely, we would play co-bills with them on different nights. I remember Mikal Gillmore writing an article where he said, you know, “It was a great time to be a party to what was going on in LA.” The period I’m talking about is probably from about 1980 to 1985. It seemed like, in that five year period, a lot of things happened, there were bands like Rank and File that were originally the Dils, the punk band, the [Kinman] brothers who formed Rank and File, you had Tex and the Horseheads, Carla Olson and the Textones, along with Maria McKee who was on my first Warner album, doing a duet on “Bury Me.” Los Lobos—David [Hildago] and those guys—their careers started to take off, and by ’83 we were out together, by ’84 we had started doing some double bills.
Michael Gillmore was writing about that in the Herald—about, in one night, being able to go out to the east end of the Valley, you know the Palomino Club, to the beach, Santa Monica, and see a collection of about five different clubs full of musicians that were performing shows on that particular Friday night. All bands that were loosely confederated with each other, in a way that was belied by the disparate nature of the musical styles. Los Lobos were coming out of the East LA…kind of the remnants of the East LA rock & roll scene that goes back into the 1950s, from Ritchie Valens and forward, and the influence that had on rock music, and then you had Dave Alvin and the Blasters from Downing. Gilmore pointed out that, that particular night, he said, “What a moment we’re all sharing,” and I agree. That particular night, Los Lobos and I were on a double bill at Club 88, out on, I think it was Pico Blvd in Santa Monica, out in the city of Santa Monica, but I think he may have started that night with Carla Olson and the Textones at Palamino and worked his way across to the Lingerie. I don’t know if he did Madame Wong’s China Town, back up to the Music Machine in Santa Monica then to Club 88 where we were. So yeah, we were playing that show that night with Los Lobos.
Later, like Dave Alvin and the Blasters, Los Lobos acted as enablers for me to take my music outside of Southern California and took me cross-country on bills with them. In particular, the Blasters took me to Houston, Texas, New York City, and Austin, Texas. And Los Lobos took me up into the Bay Area at Bill Graham’s club, one night we opened for Los Lobos in two different clubs in the same night in San Francisco. That’s how kinetic the scene was and how great the support was for music. While we were opening for them at one club, they were playing at the other club and then we flipped, pulled all the equipment, literally threw it in a van and drove several blocks away and went into the club, so…it was a good time for music.
Although there were a lot of different styles in that scene—punk, hillbilly, ’50’s-influenced rock & roll—there also seems to be some musical connection between all those bands.
I think, in a way, we were the last real generation of musicians that were able to have one foot of our childhoods, collectively, based in the foundational cornerstones of any of the forms of music that we were playing, whether it was rock & roll, or in my case country or hillbilly music. I grew up hearing the originators—first and second-generation American country music. The very first things to play on radio, I was listening to them some twenty or thirty years later, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was still Jimmy Rodgers, and then I could also certainly hear the second generation of Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and then Hank Williams Sr. And then also the contemporaries that were on the radio then, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, inundating my mind’s ears.
I think that was a similar situation for David and Caesar from Los Lobos, I know it was the same for Dave Alvin, he wrote “Border Radio” and he was talking about all those kinds of influences from the ’60s when you could get an education in music by listening to AM radio in any major city in the country at that point, really not contingent upon region. By that point music was really exploding in car radios in a very transcendent way, and it crossed all boundaries. We had that common exposure of AM Top 40, when it was truly a Top 40 format radio, when you’d hear—and I’ve said this many times in interviews, but its because its an absolute truth—you could hear Buck Owens’s “Tiger By The Tale” or “Act Naturally,” followed by the Supremes, followed by the Rolling Stones, followed by the Turtles leading into Statler Brothers singing “Flowers on the Wall,” banging up against Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” So there was this wonderful, plural, cross-pollenization that was occurring with radio at that point. It’s what we all had in common.
Then 20 years later you’ve said you found something similar, again in LA, amongst a younger group of musicians, like the guitarist Keith Gattis.
Well there was this whole kind of…it’s all cyclic, so there was this rebirth of, as much as Gram [Parsons] denies the term, I think it is an apt term: its country rock with no hyphen, and that was truly what was going on in the late ’60s early ’70s, and in the ’80s in that scene I was just describing. It was called cowpunk at one point, somebody applied that moniker to it, and there was a rebirth of the whole country rock scene around 2001 to 2002, 2003, and that’s how I met Keith Gattis.
I was going to Molly Malone’s where they were having the monthly Sweetheart of the Rodeo event—again a reference, an homage to Gram, the Byrds, Chris Hillman, and their album. That album really, for me, is the marked chronological point that you can say country rock began. With that record, which kind of melded together rockabilly from Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash to Elvis—the Sun stuff—to the West Coast and Gene Vincent, Rick Nelson material up in through Buck Owens and the whole Bakersfield sound. It all kind of came together in that moment, crystallized, as country rock in the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Clarence White’s work on that was of seminal and profound importance. Then again, you have this movement, now in the infancy of the 21st Century, occurring again in the same place where it began. There’s a natural kind of co-mingling of all that Okie-Arky legacy, the new migrant wave of generation after generation—it always kind of ends up on the West Coast, watching the sun set into the ocean, and bringing with them, as poets and musicians and song writers, cultural influences like I had with me in the late ’70s.
So I was out, kind of hanging, watching those clubs. And I sat in with Keith for the first time on another night that Vince Vaughn’s sister and [actress] Joey Lauren Adams [who is from Little Rock], interestingly enough, were acting as producers for—it was called East Bound and Down, but it was the same community of performers. It was the Sweetheart of the Rodeo band Keith had—a band that acted more as a house band, and I got up and sat in with Keith and with Mitch Marine.
Are there any other musicians in that scene that you took note of?
Well prior to that, through Waylon, I was aware of Shooter Jennings. Shooter had Stargun, his first band, or the band that was first playing in clubs here in LA, and they played the Whiskey one night and Vince Vaughn and I—Vince Vaughn, Waylon and myself—we went over and watched Shooter perform and it’s an experience I will cherish forever because it wasn’t long after that that Waylon passed away. It was great to see him so nervous for his son, anticipating what could happen, what could go wrong at the Whiskey A Go-Go, then to watch him fill with pride when he watched Shooter come out and perform and pull off a great performance that night. And since then, I’ve watched Shooter evolve into his own as a solo artist, so Shooter was also sort of in that scene. And I’ve had the Sin City All Stars open for me before, here at shows in LA. So I try to be supportive of what they’re doing.
Are there any other musicians you find exciting from the younger generation?
I’ve been really taken with what Jack White does with the White Stripes. I’ve recently watched the live Blackpool Lights DVD [Under Blackpool Lights] and several of the albums…not to play favorites, but my favorite at this point is Elephant. I just really think that that album is brilliantly written, and executed, and I’m just really taken with his ability not only as a songwriter and as a producer and creative personality, but also as a guitarist. Some of the things he’s doing on that, where its kind of staccato triplet soloing on track nine [“Ball and Biscuit”], “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine.” I was just blown away by that. Also his version of “Jolene” is one of the most poignant…. “Ball and Biscuit” is just sensational, so I can listen to pretty much whatever Jack’s doing at any give time because it’s coming from that pure place of riff-oriented, guitar riff-driven hook rock & roll writing. That’s again one of the foundational cornerstones.
In a lot of shorter stories and bios about you, people say “Dwight Yoakam is credited in the ’80s with bringing country back to its roots,” which is an interesting statement because you’ve remained outside of what has been mainstream country for most of your career.
Well I think what they’re alluding to is, I’ve had great success at country radio, fortunately. Unlike some alternative artists that don’t ever access a mainstream audience because of lack of radio play, I was fortunate in that we kinna were able to maintain the integrity of what we were doing and what I was doing while keeping LA as my recording base and being allowed by Warner Nashville to do it on my own terms. And yet to still have like 15 or 18 or so top ten hits. On radio. And in the ’80s and up through the late ’90s, radio was still the principle way to access a mass audience. And I know video a lot of times allowed me to circumvent radio when there were moments when I didn’t have a song out. Like “Long White Cadillac,” which is Dave Alvin’s great tribute to Hand Williams Sr, I think that only went to 35 on radio, but it was a top 5 on CMT and TNN at the time, The Nashville Network. So I was able to reach an audience in a different way, reach a country audience in a different way. I think there’s a visual element to what I was doing, what the band looked like when we first appeared in 1986, that if you look at anything prior to us probably appearing, you don’t see the visual aesthetic that we were presenting.
When did you personally begin dressing the way you do, and developing that whole look?
Well I’ve been wearing Levi’s 517s as boot jeans for many years, since I got out of high school. When I threw away the last pair of huge bell-bottom jeans, I went back to the 517 and it’s a jean they’ve been making since the 1950s. It was called a Saddleman Boot jean – it was a cowboy boot jean and you could wear it over your cowboy boots. I remember I had a pair of Justin’s, they call ’em muleskin boots, but it’s the Justin cowboy boot they’ve made since the ’60s, and you couldn’t wear a straight leg jean because you couldn’t get it over the top of the boot, so I just started wearing those out of high school sometime.
You know, when I decided my last bell-bottom was ruined—and people by the middle or late ’80s thought the 517 were flare leg jeans, and it was like, No, dude. You haven’t seen flare leg jeans, you’re too young to remember what we were wearing in 1972 and 3 and 4. I saw a funny piece on Evil Knievel recently, and Frank Gifford, when he was hosting ABC Wide World of Sports, had the biggest bell-bottom. The guys and me were on the bus and we just stopped in our tracks, like what is he wearing. It was probably 197-… it was whenever Evil was gonna jump the Snake Canyon. By ’75 all bets were off. Although I’m sure the Casey Tibbs crowd and pure rodeo-ers were still in their 517s. Levi’s were the benchmark before Wrangler.
And in terms of wearing the clothing, when I could afford to go to Manuel [the former head designer at Nudie, who opened his own shop in Hollywood in the mid-’70s]…. In 1984, I’m wearing a piped jacket on the back of that album [Guitars, Cadillacs, etc etc]. I was claiming country’s birthright to outrageous stage clothes. I used to call ’em state fair clothes because that’s where I saw ’em as a kid, with rhinestones and so forth. You’d go to the Ohio State Fair and see country come out with rhinestones and embroidered suits – the Nudie suit in other words – but there’s a tradition of that going back to the ’40s, starting probably with Ernest Tubb in terms of the honky tonkers. And I was playing joints in the West Coast, you know, the Western honky tonk scene I was coming out of, it was just a natural reclaiming on my part of that visual aesthetic. The last time that it had really played a dominant role was probably with Emmylou Harris in an echo of the country rock moment with Gram [Parsons] and the Byrds, Chris Hillman, and you know, the Burritos coming out of the Byrds and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album with Gram and Chris.
And that was something that Emmylou picked up later on.
Yeah, well she was party to it with Gram and his GP album and Return of the Grievous Angel, and she was involved with Gram of course. So she continued that tradition, and there was always that aesthetic on the West Coast of country and rock mixing, not only terms of the musical aesthetic, but also in the visual element.
I had my first couple coats made by a talented graphic artist and seamster and designer named Tony Riviera, and she had made the blue piped coat that I’m wearing on the back of Guitars, Cadillacs. That was prior to when I was able to afford to go into Manuel. I had it cut as a three-quarter length because I’d always liked that look, and then when I went in to Manuel and I’d always liked what I call the Buckaroo coats that Buck [Owens] wore, and Manuel said, “Oh you mean the Boleros?” And I said “Okay! That’ll be that.” [Bandmates] Pete Anderson and JD Foster, the bass player at the time, dressed also in full Western suits with the short bolero cut a la the Buckaroos, and then Brantley Currans wore the bibb overall and the fedora, that was his normal look from coming out of the clubs and everything else. And I had been using a combination of a breaking away from the full Nudie suit and using my jeans and combining them, and I sat with Manuel and I started using asymmetrical designs on my coats and that was kind of breaking the mold there.
And what about your hat?
Well I had a hat when I was in my late teens that I wore and then wouldn’t wear, and there were actually a couple shots of us when I think we were playing at the Palace, where I didn’t have a hat on. But I had a pink flower embroidered jacket, one of the two that Tony Riviera made and we were opening for Nick Lowe in early ’85, and I would wear the hat and not wear the hat, but it was a hat that Manuel blocked for me years before I went back and had the coats made in his first shop. He had two different stores after he left Nudie’s. I went in in 1979 and had that hat blocked, and I only quit wearing that hat late last summer. I finally was getting out of my car and caught the corner—I was getting ready to do a taping or something—and caught it and kind of tore the fringe. That hat was, at that point, how old? 25 years old. So I retired it—mended it up and put it away on the shelf. I have other hats, they’re Stetsons that I had blocked like it, Stetson did a signature model of it. That block is called…it’s a bull rider brim with an RCA crown, which is the Rodeo Cowboy Association before it became the PRCA. I’d always liked it, so I went into Manuel and I said, “I want an RCA crown, but bring the sides up.” So he’d steam it and re-block, steam and re-block, we’d pull the sides up some more. And I have a great blocker out of San Antonio that’s blocked a lot of hats for me, Tara’s Hatters out of San Antonio, they’ve blocked a lot of my hats over the years now and do a great initial block. But I’ll get the kettle out and steam ’em up and touch ’em up. Because things don’t settle until, well when things get shipped, I’ll just, well, hot steam is what you use to block the felt. I’ll just hand block it myself once I get it.
I remember when I was a kid, there used to be a great series on Saturdays, what was that called? There were these young kids on a ranch that were, it was like boy’s camp on a dude ranch, they were kind of working, it was a Saturday morning series after cartoons went off and this was in the early ’60s so you’re probably too young to remember. It was like a working ranch with a collection of wayward kids, it wasn’t reform school but it was a group of adolescent boys that were on this ranch. One of the things that was interesting to me—because I wasn’t growing up in cowboy culture I was growing up in hillbilly culture in Ohio and Kentucky—was watching these kids block these cowboy hats. I had cowboy hats as a kid and I had boots, but just the environment I was in, we weren’t part of ranch culture, but watching this ranch show where they would use jars of canned goods, canned peaches or preserves in bell jars and they would stack them up against the brim. That’s the first time I realized that cowboy hats don’t come shaped, that you had to take this flat brim and start shaping it. When I was old enough to buy a decent hat and kind of had a decent idea of what I wanted, that’s what I did.
And that brim is a bullrider’s brim, it’s an old style, and it’s called that because the bullriders would yank the front really hard to get it down on their head. For the cowboy boots, I always used an underslung Mexican heel and I use a very pointed needle toe. That’s an outgrowth of again a utilitarian practice. The toe of the cowboy boot, with the Texas cowboys and the vaqueros, slowly from the late 19th century up through the middle 20th century, continued to take more and more bluntness from the toe of the cowboy boot, because it allowed them to get in and out of the stirrup quicker and easier. From any angle. If you look at the pointed toe of a cowboy boot, it can go at the stirrup from any angle and slip in, whereas an older toe, a middle of the 19th century, blunt toed boot, it would also get caught in the stirrup if the cowboy fell. If you’ve ridden at all, you realize that the longer you ride, the odds are more in favor of you falling. At some point you’re gonna get dumped from a horse. And what you don’t wanna do is be hung up in a stirrup and get dragged. This is, I’m sure, by the ’50s and ’60s—when we see a kind of needle toe cowboy boot coming out of the Southwest and West Coast—also relative to contemporary stylings that also played a hand in furthering the extreme. In car culture, in the fin culture of the late ’50s, from Cadillac fins to Chevrolet Impala fins by ’59, that probably drove the cowboy boot into a needle-nosed extreme that was an exaggeration of where it evolved from originally, in terms of actual, practical use.
So anyway, to go back to the question we started with, the observation that was made that you’re referring to, again I’m reclaiming what I thought was a visual aesthetic. And I was mixing, as much as anything, mountain music. If you listen to that first album and you listen to the early demos from ’81, I’ve always said Ricky Skaggs was a beacon. He proved that hillbilly music—PURE mountain music—could be commercially viable. George Straight proved the same for honky tonk music. In the three years prior to my coming out, you know ’83, ’84, George and Ricky were making records that were, commercially, extremely successful. George, he may have had a platinum album, I know he had a gold; Ricky had two gold records in a row. And I was—in those demo tapes early on and playing in bars coming out of the west coast—I was doing something so hillybilly that it was accused of being rock & roll by an A&R person that came and watched us at the Palace.
When I was doing the demos a producer said to me, “That’s so hillbilly, they’re going to call it rock & roll.” Because they don’t understand. Because country music had moved so far away from what it was in the late ’50s, except on the West Coast, where it had stayed true to that up to the late ’60s and early ’70s with Buck [Owens] and Merle [Haggard]. Although they didn’t always have the direct line to the kind of hillybilly culture that I came from – the kind of bluegrass mountain music that I came from. You hear that though with what Chris Hillman was doing on the Byrds’ Sweetheart album, because Chris ironically came out of the West Coast playing bluegrass and that’s how he discovered Buck [Owens] in the early ’60s. But Chris had a bluegrass band and was a huge bluegrass proponent. Then he met Clarence White through their association as bluegrass musicians, before Clarence had the Byrds. Clarence had the Kentucky Colonels with his brother, with the encouragement of their father, because they were transplant Kentuckians to the West Coast. And I guess you can take the boy out of Kentucky but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy. And that’s what followed me in my life.
So I guess, I would hope, that if I can be credited with anything it’s maintaining a connection to my own personal legacy of my family’s journey out of rural Appalachia. And hearing that music and hearing my mother and my aunt’s sweet sweet gorgeous Appalachian voices singing that way to me. And my being encouraged in the seats of Cadillacs and Buicks going up and down Route 23 when we would leave Columbus and go the 90 miles to cross over Kentucky into Ashland and go and be with my grandparents on the weekend, you know just singing that music and hearing that music on the radio. It’s 1961, ’62, ’63. This is early ’60s. This is when radio, by the mile marker I can click off the transitions. Even in Columbus you would hear hardcore hillbilly music on the radio because I wrote the song “Readin Ritin Route 23” based on the joke that the native Ohioans would use as a bit of a cultural slur to the folks who came from West Virginia and Kentucky and the South. You know, “What are the three Rs they teach you in Kentucky Schools? Readin, writin and Route 23 North.”
So I wrote that as a reclaiming of I guess, or not even reclaiming, but a means of replacing any embarrassment, any stigma that my mother and aunts, uncle and those that were a generation before me dealt with. Not like me, who moved out so young that I assimilated, although I still probably have that Ohio Valley drawl. As Tommy Lee [Jones] said to me when we were filming this movie Three Burials [of Melquiades Estrada], “Less Ohio River, more West Texas.” Because he, of course, had filmed Coal Miner’s Daughter back there in the county I was born in, Pike County. He said, “Dwight, I need a lil less Ahaia River” because it’s A-h-a-i-a instead of O. But anyway I didn’t suffer the ridicule, and I wanted to replace that ridicule in writing that song and illustrate how blessed I had been by being exposed and coming from the culture and by the continuing exposure I’d had, and how much of a source of inspiration that became for me, and how much of an honor that inspiration from my family was in the writing of that song. And to replace ridicule with honor.
So perhaps that’s what they’re alluding to. I had been very vocal about using the term “hillbilly music” in “Guitars, Cadillacs” the song. And in fact the label approached Pete Anderson my producer about going back for the single and replacing the term “hillbilly,” and he said, “I think that’s the most…. I will say this to Dwight after I say this to you. I think that’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, are you out of your minds? That’s in fact what we have just spent the previous year in oblivion climbing to the point where we could have this album heard. And what he is hell bent on making whole for himself again.” And that’s the way I felt about it. He came to me after the fact, and we’ve already cut the single, the single is shipping the way it’s supposed to be so I didn’t have to get into that battle, and there was also my then-manager Sherman Halls, who was equally forthright in saying, “That’s the whole point of what they’re doing and that’s what this record’s about.”
But that’s what the whole climate was. It’s easy to forget now, with everybody wearing suits, hats and boots, but when we broke in 1985, if you look what was on CMT, I don’t think you’ll see things being presented in terms of wardrobe, number one, the way I was doing that, and outside a couple of acts that I mentioned, the playlist was not sounding like what we were sounding like. And I’ve been part of a continuum, hopefully trying to honor it, of what I call “the California country sound,” which was the Bakersfield sound. And Buck and Merle would be the first to tell you that the Bakersfield sound was for the most part recorded in LA, in Hollywood at Capitol Record Studios on Vine St, first with Tommy Collins then Wynne Stewart, with Buck Owens playing lead guitar for them. And then Buck Owens made all his records in Hollywood, but they were all living in Bakersfield.
It was like the Palm sound or the San Fernando Valley sound or the Valley sound. In fact they used one of my tracks on a compilation album that came out in 1985 titled The Town South of Bakersfield, that Pete Anderson was part of compiling. It was a compilation album of all the bands in Southern California out at that time, and The Town South of Bakersfield, that was a tongue-in-cheek reference to that Bakersfield sound coming out of the San Fernando Valley and the joints like the Palomino and the Roundup and then all the clubs in LA on the Hollywood side that were playing “cow punk” at that time. And I was part of that continuum, but Blake Chancey, the producer who did the Dixie Chicks, we were cutting some vocals for “Locomotion” a track we were cutting for a television spot a couple years ago, and we were on tour down there and Blake was working with Keith Gattis. We were talking about Johnny Horton and how he had influenced me and how I listened to him growing up as a child—to his greatest hits. And “Honky Tonk Man,” my first hit single, was a Johnny Horton cut.
So, in answer to your question, I don’t know, read the song titles on the first album, the second album, the third album, then go read the song titles on the playlists from 1984, 1985, 1986 and you tell me what they mean. I think it’s pretty clear. It should be evident. I don’t think there’s a scratch your head moment like, “Huh? What do you mean he brought country back….”
But you have continued to do through 2006 what you started back then, while country has gone through a variety of different phases.
Well I’ve never listened to other things. That’s why it was hard for me when you were asking about other music, I listen in a real marginal way. I mean there are some young acts that catch my attention occasionally when we’re playing a bill or something, but I really have focused on my music. And what I was gonna say about Blake [Chancey], is I told him I felt very shaped by Johnny Horton all my life, and then there’s the more inescapable people whether it’s Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis, where there was such a proliferation of them in the culture that I wouldn’t have escaped that.
But Johnny Horton was one of those inside influences, and of course Cash, who again had rural mountain music in his background, which is why I think he stayed pure to rockabilly, the hillbilly element of it. Because he’s out of the Ozarks and Arkansas, again, mountain culture, which is different than deep Southern culture. It’s unique because there’s an autonomous nature to mountain culture. Billy Bob Thornton and I have talked about that: in West Virginia and Kentucky and southeastern Ohio, you get a very isolating sense of things. And so in talking about that Johnny Horton influence that day, Blake alluded to something—because I don’t have that same vocal range, because his father and he had produced a lot of bluegrass—he said, “You know it reminds me, I think one of your biggest influences is Bill Monroe.” And I said, Well absolutely. It was so much a part of my sub-conscious and my psyche that I never even thought to say, Well, in terms of my singing style, [Bill Monroe was an influence] because my range is not quite the piercingly high first tenor. But those elements were something that I carried into what I was doing and they’re still there in what I do on record.
The reason that I brought up that statement about you bringing country back to its roots is because it seems problematic – it doesn’t seem so true to me because you have always done something so outside of whatever the mainstream of country music is doing at any given time. You have always had great success with a sound that has evolved from the roots of country, but the mainstream hasn’t necessarily followed you there.
Well, but what happened is that we were able to simultaneously access the mainstream audience because what I was doing was so…it was not a contrivance for me, it was organic for me. When I say I was reclaiming things for myself it was from a very specific personal history. Do you know what I’m saying? I’ve thrown up more times than not from sitting in the backseat on mountain roads. I’ve had to stop and vomit. I’ve done a lot of miles on hillbilly highways. I mean hillybilly highways. I don’t mean stuff that comes out of the flatlands, I mean stuff that’s like a corkscrew. And it was rough ridin for me as a kid and I’ve done it a lot, and that’s what I was writing about.
In addition to this new generation that appeared in LA in the early 2000s and the subsequent playing with Keith Gattis, what got you excited to write and record a new album [Blame the Vain]?
Well I think that my experience with Keith was completely an unplanned spontaneous reaction to doing a benefit that he came and sat in on. I was doing it acoustically—we had become friends hanging out at Molly Malone’s and then subsequently the King King Club. I sat in with his band there and we kinna hung out and he was a fan of the music, and then we sat up there and did a Christmas benefit and soon after that I was saying, You know – I was just finishing up Population Me and didn’t really have tour plans ironed out for 2003 and was not gonna start any kind of band performances until the summer of 2003. I said, I’ve been threatening since dwightyoakamacoustic.net came out to go out and do some dates just with a guitar. I had done it on shows where I’d come out during the encore and play just 2 or 3 songs, or sometimes I’d do a couple acoustic songs during the middle of the set with the band, and I said, You wanna go do 3 or 4 things and we’ll do a week up the coast?
It went well and literally while we were doing shows, my agent Rick Shipp from William Morris would call up and say, “We got interest - do you want to go up to Oregon?” And we started in Modesto and in the Bay and up north and it turned into 42 shows. So 42 cities later the bus stopped in Nashville at the Exit Inn during that “Almost Alone” run that we did for a couple, three months. It was in April that I realized I had to start sorting out the summer because we had dates where there was gonna be a band required of some sort. I said, You know I really don’t want to quit doing this, I’d like to add upright bass. Keith knew Dave Roe from recording his first album for RCA in Nashville, and then I thought, if I need a drummer for some shows where we need to be a little more electric, there’s Mitch Marine, who I had sat in with in LA with Keith…. So Dave came out and we played the Exit Inn. He came out and we just hung around during soundcheck and played a couple things and I said, You know, maybe this is the way to go. So we toured all summer - “Almost Alone and Then Some” I dubbed it. All of ’03 I think we ended up doing 170 shows including the duo “Almost Alone” and then the quartet and just had too much fun doing it, and I decided that I was gonna approach my next album that way.
It’s really coming full circle, back to that original EP and the four person nucleus. Four players plus myself, in the case of this, it was predominately pedal steel rather than the fiddle, there’s no fiddle in this one. A variation on that, just a morphing of the sound I heard in my head since I was a kid and the sounds I heard on the radio.
You’ve been doing some great acting and I want to get a sense of your priorities between music and film, but first I gotta say that I saw the movie Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada you did with Tommy Lee Jones, and I want to ask you about the sheriff you played in that film…. I never saw your character coming at all.
[laughs] I hope nobody saw that guy coming, but I’m very flattered for Tommy and pleased that it would be received that way.
Well I was just in the theater and there was this moment where I was just like, I… I think that was supposed to be funny—maybe? And then there was another moment like that and another one and another one and the whole thing, the whole tone of the movie, took a long time to unravel in a way that was wildly surprising.
Well it’s the absurdity of it. One day Tommy and I were standing, staring out at that vast… most of the landscape you see in that film is his ranch. He has a Texas size ranch. He’s from West Texas. And when Tommy Lee wanted me to come do the film, he said, [in Texas accent] “Dwight it starts in Van Horn and gets worse.” I just loved it and will forever cherish the opportunity to do that movie with him and bear witness to him directing that film. I just think it’s a great testament and I wish it had gotten more attention. At the time of its release it kind of slipped through Sony’s fingers maybe, and I just wish that, well I think ultimately it will through DVD and television be seen by a larger audience. But just for Tommy Lee, I watched him pour himself as purely as any artist can into that film from the conception of the story with Guillermo Ariaga who wrote 21 Grams. I was saying it’s like 21 Grams meets Treasure of Sierrra Madre, for lack of a better way to describe it.
We were standing on the set one day, looking over the vastness of that 150,000 acre ranch and the beauty of it, watching the crew set up for something. I said something like, “It’s like absurd reality!” And he laughed and went, “Yah! Dwight, people are absurd.” And once again you can take the boy out of West Texas – Midland vis-a-vis Dallas to Harvard and back – but you’re not gonna take West Texas out of him, and that’s what that movie is a tribute to. That and his understanding of the culture there in a unique way. And the existential elements of it there and the unique life that Tommy was capturing. He gave me the book The Stranger to read as his directorial guidance, and through his deft hand as a director in guiding me and the other actors, I think we were able to arrive at an honest and pure expression of story in those characters.
It may not be a huge consolation for him and it probably didn’t get the push it deserves but I feel like people will find it.
When it was in release in the spring it was one of the films I’ve been in that I’ve had enormous response to – disparate parties coming up to me. It certainly carried its own weight and I’m very proud to be a part of that film.
Is film for you a project-by-project thing?
Well like any other actor I’m at the mercy of opportunity. Actors have a tough lot that way. In terms of having their agent send ’em a script where someone is interested in them and they are interested in themselves. Then you’re at the mercy of all the other multitude of elements involved in making a film. And then the film is at the mercy of all the situations that arrive that allow it to have its most viable opportunity to be seen. I love it though. It’s another form of artistic expression for me. Like having Tommy Lee around me - he allowed me to make discoveries about the human experience vis-a-vis that character’s experience that were as far removed from my daily life as anything could be. Cultural and sociological touchstones aside – dialect, geography, all that – you know, I’m not a county sheriff in West Texas, dealing with border problems, so….
I find the process of discovery is more akin to songwriting for me. The thought process of creating a song, once I’ve decided on the thesis for a song as a writer, a lot of times what I’ll do, I’ll have the hook, I’ll have the first chorus or first verse and I will allow myself the privilege of co-writing the song with myself later. By that I mean, I’ll allow myself to go back and finish the lyrics once I’ve built the actual skeleton of tracks, and then when finishing the overdub process I’ll go back and write. It lets the song germinate and gestate in my mind, then I begin to find new things in the second verse or find a word that I wouldn’t have used as a means of articulating and further giving annunciation to a particular thought. And as an actor, that has something in common with what I’m doing when I’m given a part and am doing MY work, alone or with the coach that I work with, Harold Guskin. And with the director, having meetings and discussions about the specifics of the character, I’m able to do things like what I do when I reshape a specific lyric in a song. So actors really write when they’re alone with a character, deciding how they’ll express themselves through a given character and how they’ll express that character through the activity in a given scene.
I enjoy acting, and the roles are based on timing. I hadn’t planned on doing Three Burials and it lead to a role in Banditas inadvertently because the same executive producer was doing Banditas. But [the band was] doing a few scattered dates in July of ’04 and we had started recording the album in June and we were supposed to do the pickups—go back in and pick up the recording in August, which I did—and I was gonna go back in during the fall to finish the record. And I had to set that aside for Three Burials and the record’s release was delayed—we were supposed to release it in the spring and we ended up releasing it in June because I felt strongly about going to be a part of Tommy’s movie and doing Banditas down in Mexico. Which is yet to release in the US but I think it’s been out in Europe. I’ve fortunately been able to adjust my schedule, and if I’m presented an opportunity I feel strongly about, then I can make it happen.