Hat's off

Dwight Yoakam's the last great country singer left--and he doesn't need a twang to prove it

"I knew there had been this legacy of 'country-rock,' for lack of a better term, this hybrid kind of legacy that had been part of that culture," Yoakam says. "I went there thinking that maybe it would be easy to find. It wasn't. There wasn't a street, there weren't directions and a guide, a Chamber of Commerce guide as to how you could locate it. In Nashville, on the other hand, the music community is easily located and identified clearly and defined geographically as well as sociologically, even in '76-'77 when I first went there. It's there, and it's accessible--tangible--and it's very intangible in Los Angeles, because, really, the business that's there is the movie business. There was this great kind of music that came out of there, an outgrowth of the late '60s-early '70s, and I got there just a little behind that curve."

Yoakam had gone to Nashville briefly in the late 1970s, but then turned tail and headed west--why, even he doesn't really know, he says with one of those casual, almost ditzy shrugs that hide his genuine smarts. He went to L.A. with a guitar-playing friend who had family in Orange County just south of L.A., and they lived in the harbor town of Long Beach.

During his first few months in Southern California, Yoakam took a job working on a loading dock near Long Beach; he would spend the nights wandering Ocean Boulevard, absorbing the new surroundings--the people who didn't speak English, the men sleeping on benches, a landscape that looked absolutely nothing like the place he called home. He felt displaced and ultimately alone. He was, as he says with a serious, intense smile, "at the edge of the continent," removed from everything he had ever known. He would take odd jobs all over the city--once in Koreatown for a few years--working as a courier, doing anything to support his music habit--and eat.

"I always felt that I was probably going to go back to Kentucky," Yoakam says. "But I was at ease with the idea, as it gradually took hold, that I wouldn't probably ever go back, if that makes any kind of convoluted sense. I felt drawn to the West Coast. It's part of our national consciousness. It's in our national subconscious, the pull westward. The immigrant's journey has been east to west for many centuries now. I guess it was in the Western European's subconscious just to be drawn away from the old out into the new somehow."

Years later, Yoakam would pick up a copy of John Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust and realize he shared so very much with the book's protagonist (and Fante's alter-ego), Arturo Bandini. Fante, a great inspiration to the likes of Charles Bukowski and screenwriter Robert Towne, wrote of a young man who had moved from Colorado to Los Angeles at age 20 to become a great writer. Bandini envisioned himself on library shelves next to Theodore Dreiser and H.L. Mencken--one of the greats, one of the all-time writing champs. But when he arrived, landing on Bunker Hill, Bandini had found he was not alone; he was just one more transient soul in the land of dreams.

"The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun," Fante wrote. "And when they got here, they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to others."

Yoakam moved to L.A. when he, too, was 20--and he, too, found himself struggling to find his place in the sun. He came of age in Sin City and looked back only to write about home--about coal miners in Kentucky, about farm roads that lead to somewhere better, and how, one day, he'd like to be buried "under a blue Kentucky sky." But like Fante, Yoakam so often looked into the sunset and saw himself in the reflection: The song "Guitars, Cadillacs" off his first record was about "a naive fool that came to Babylon and found out that the pie don't taste too sweet."

The wonderful "Bury Me," from the expanded, Warners-released 1986 version of Guitars, Cadillacs, told of a boy who came to "this old town of sin" only to find "it's about to do me in." "I don't know how much I can stand," he wrote not long after moving to L.A. "With my knees on the street and my heart at their feet/I'm forced to beg from Satan's hand...Now I've somehow turned astray/Yet I still see the truth in the teaching of my youth." In L.A., Yoakam found his voice--a nasal howl, actually, a cross between a yodel and a moan--through which to tell his tales. In L.A., he found his muse.

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