Q&A: Dwight Yoakam

Kentucky-born country icon Dwight Yoakam shuts down the Fleur de Lis stage at HullabaLOU beginning at 7:25 p.m. on Sunday, July 25. This homecoming appearance was previewed in the LEO Music Issue, and here’s the full Q&A from that interview.

LEO: Now that it’s been a couple of years since the Buck Owens tribute release, are we ever going to see a version of his “Tiger by the Tail”?

DY: I’ve always felt that I’ll leave that one to Buck. My homage to “Tiger by the Tail” is to be found in the song “Little Ways.” Think about how I perform the phrasing on that: You’ve…got…your…little ways… In 1987 when I put the Hillbilly Deluxe album out, in the liner notes it’s dedicated to the inspiration that Buck Owens was to a generation of country performers. “Tiger by the Tail”—I always felt that that was truly Buck and I didn’t want to encroach on that. But I am writing new material, and maybe by next year we’ll have a new studio album out. It’s been 5 years [since Blame the Vain, Yoakam’s last album of original material].

LEO: Last fall, you were heard to say that you were contemplating the possibilities of making statements with EPs or singles instead of full albums.
DY: It remains to be seen — but recently the Nashville labels have started looking at that. They’ve released Blake Shelton’s 6-song EP [Hillbilly Bone]. My original “Guitars, Cadillacs …” was a big ol’ 12” vinyl released in ’84 on Oak Records, and it was actually a 6-song EP. Sony purchased those masters, we cut four more sides — including the title track (which I’d written after I titled the album), “Honky Tonk Man”, “Bury Me” with Maria McKee and “Heartaches by the Number.” Then they rereleased it worldwide in Spring of ’86 as a 10-song LP. So it would be kind of a weird “full circle” — but nobody really has a hard answer for that. I do think that people are back to (emphasizing) individual tracks.

LEO: The musical road that you took early on—from Kentucky/Ohio, to Nashville and then on to Bakersfield/LA. If you were starting today, do you think you’d take the same path? Is it easier for people to find kindred souls in other regions without leaving home?
DY: We had long-distance phone calling in the late ‘70s. It wasn’t exactly 19th century America where you literally had to leave home to find other culture. We already had cable impacting us by the middle/late ‘70s. Surely the plethora of access to information is greater now. But I still think that moving yourself from one environ to another … maybe as a writer, it’s hard to say what I would have been if I’d stayed in the Ohio Valley or down in Nashville. But it didn’t happen that way, so it’s all kind-of retrospective speculation.

LEO: You were singing about heartbreak and life on the road right from the start — but now with three decades of the road behind you, do some of the songs come more naturally? Do they feel different inside of you?
DY: Yes. A quick Yes! (laughs) Or as my grandaddy, Luther Tibbs, might’ve said — he’d probably spit up ahead of it ‘n all, then gone “Yup.”

LEO: Some recent YouTube videos show you covering Gordon Lightfoot and the BeeGees. You once experimented with a big-band version of “Tired of Waiting for You.” But are there more recent songs, any recent songwriters, you’d like to try?
DY: For me, it’s a sonic thing as much as it is songwriting. Jack White’s material has captured me from the beginning. Because it adheres to an age-old tradition of pop music: A 2-and-a-half or 3-minute riff song. He’s really astute and extremely capable. It’s a tough thing to do, to write something that has layered meanings in two or three minutes. The school where everybody could go to on that is the guys in the Brill Building, with Gerry Goffin and Carole King. But there are people out there [still] doing things: Kings of Leon have also made some great music recently. But I’m going to leave out somebody I like — that’s off the top of my head.

LEO: When you switched over to New West, was there any conscious decision that “This is a step further away from mainstream country”? Did anything that happened over the last decade change how you approach songwriting?
DY: We’ve completed our tenure (at New West) and we’re not sure of which direction we’ll go. We’re in discussions with major labels, but we’re also talking other things within the new paradigm — other approaches to releasing the music, putting out the record. My life is what dictates what I’m doing at any moment with songwriting. When I came out in 1986, I was as far from mainstream country in 1986 at the time as I have ever been at any time in my career. So, in answer to your question, I guess it’s never been relevant for me. Was everybody doing what Keith Urban was doing when Keith broke 4, 5, 6 years ago? No. And you hope they’re not, because that sets you apart and allows you to have an audience that’ll respond to your uniqueness.

LEO: I saw “South of Heaven, West of Hell” (Yoakam co-wrote, starred in and directed) the other night, and there was Warren Zevon. It was wonderful to see him on camera.
DY: I know that earlier in his professional life he could be a bit of an “Excitable Boy,” to use his term. But in the years I knew him he was nothing but a dear soul, a friend to me, and I will always cherish the memory of him being in “South of Heaven” as that character he plays.

LEO: What are you reading these days?
DY: I just finished James Ellroy — the last of his tome … I can’t remember the name of it … he made ‘em so huge so they couldn’t make ‘em into movies. Anyway, I just finished the third one, which follows “The Cold Six Thousand.” I was also reading a little bit of “Travels with Charley” —Steinbeck’s autobiographical walk through various states. And I just finished “Spooner” by Pete Dexter. Twenty years ago, “Paris Trout” was the first Pete Dexter I’d ever read. And he wrote “Deadwood,” which was the visceral inspiration for “South of Heaven, West of Hell.” Y’know, before they made the [cable TV] series “Deadwood,” they’d tried to make a film of it with Jeff Bridges. I’m proud to say my DP (director of photography), James Glennon, and my costume designer from “South of Heaven” — they took both for creating “Deadwood.” Yeah, that James Ellroy—he’s a readable nut.

LEO: Thank you for your time. Hope you enjoy playing HullabaLOU.
DY: Well, I look forward to being back near family. My dad’s in Louisville — he’s lived there for 27, 28 years. I’ll get to see family that comes up from southern Tennessee and some from Ohio.

LEO: This is a new festival. It’ll be an adventure to see how it turns out — but they clearly didn’t want to just go and copy something like SXSW or Lollapalooza.
DY: Well, none of those are at Churchill Downs, I’ll tell you that. It’s historic in its own right, and I’m proud to be a part of it. —T.E. Lyons

2 Comments

  1. Brenda
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m excited to see Dwight, the Master of Songwriting and Performing this Sunday in Louisville!! Have fun with your family and friends, Dwight. Nice Q&As here, BTW. Have to check out what Dwight’s been reading. :-)

  2. Glenda
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Makes me wish I was going to back there to see Dwight. He beems when his family is around. Dwight you are so Blessed with talent and I will be a fan for the rest of my life!

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