Saturday, September 22, 2012

The bustling world of Dwight Yoakam

By Chrissie Dickinson
The Chicago Tribune
September 17, 2012

It's not every day we get to talk to a country music icon who waxes poetic about agape love, quotes John Lennon and collaborates with Beck. This would be the singular Dwight Yoakam, a post-modern cowboy with a steel-trap mind who easily recalls his video shoot in Chicago more than two decades ago.
Yoakam is on the phone, reminiscing about his 1986 music video for his early hit "Guitars, Cadillacs." Watch the video and you'll see a shot of the storied ballroom in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, the Aragon, with the marquee advertising Yoakam on a bill with the Violent Femmes. You'll also see footage of the young Yoakam, guitar in hand, standing in front of Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven, the late, lamented country dive that once stood across the street from the Aragon and had a jukebox packed with Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Paycheck.
"Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven," Yoakam says. "There's a shot of me and these Native American kids walking by me. Sherman Halsey was the director on that. He shot that video all the way up from Texas to Chicago and that was some of the final footage."
Today, Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven is gone, but the Aragon still thrives. As does Yoakam, 55, who releases his smart new album, "3 Pears" (Warner Bros. Records) on Tuesday.
The release is his first all-new studio album in seven years, and it finds the singer-songwriter back on his original major label. The CD is produced by Yoakam, with Beck co-producing on two tracks. Kid Rock turns up as a co-writer on a song.
Through it all is Yoakam's unmistakable voice, a distinctive instrument filled with cutting twang, melancholy tones and the occasional rockabilly hiccup and blue yodel. The CD is classic Dwight and continues his reputation as a country artist with deep roots who has also effortlessly absorbed a number of styles, from string-laden pop to cowpunk to first-wave rock 'n' roll. "3 Pears" finds Yoakam moving from the pulsing beat and precisely stinging electric guitars of "Take Hold of My Hand" to the mournful love song "Trying" to a muscular, modernized raveup of the classic "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)."
"He's always been a sponge as far as soaking up influences," says veteran music critic Don McLeese, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and author of the recently published "Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere" (University of Texas Press). "His first two albums were hard-core honky-tonk, but after that he's been throwing curveball after curveball. And I think most of the material is very strong on this album. It all holds together. Even though people like Beck and Kid Rock are involved, I don't think any of that seems exploitative. It all sounds like Dwight."
Beginning with his major label debut in 1986, Yoakam managed a nearly singular feat as a country artist: His appeal has ranged across the board demographically, from mainstream country fans to bikers to alt-country hipsters to straight-up rock fans who otherwise have no taste for twang.
"There's always been a rock dynamic to what he does, but it's always been rooted in really traditional twang and country," McLeese says. "I think he's been able to appeal to both constituencies without compromising."
Yoakam is a thoughtful and skilled songwriter. He speaks of the artistic process in spiritual terms, his language as heady as it is sincere. "I believe we're born knowing a lot more than we remember and we're taught to forget (for) the rest of our lives. That's what songwriting is to me — a momentary touchstone of remembering on some small scale what we've been taught to forget."
Yoakam grows expansive on the subject. "To me, it's almost as if (the songs) are already there. I think it's like the approach to sculpting where you're just trying to chip away to the existing sculpture that is already there underneath the rest of the rock. That's what I am always continuing to learn to do with songs. It's a process of discovery for me. The song is there, waiting to be discovered."
He quotes Lennon: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Yoakam talks about universal love in terms similar to the late Beatle.
"As bad as it is, or as failed as moments can be in life, in my heart I still believe that love ... " he says, pausing to collect his thoughts. "It's that universal sense that somewhere in existence is the agape version of love. We share something in common with the fabric of the whole universe that connects us."
Yoakam has also made a second career for himself as a respected character actor with indelible performances in such films as "Red Rock West," "Sling Blade" and "Panic Room."
He's come a long way from home. Yoakam was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio and lit out for California at 2. So how, exactly, did this country kid manage to attain the dream?
"I think the willingness to live outside the reach of self-doubt was one of my strengths," Yoakam says. "However you arrive at the ability to ignore self-doubt — if you can acquire it or possess it or find it or discover it — move beyond self-doubt."

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