Hat's off

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

"I was displaced enough by going to L.A. from my own kind of regional, colloquial past that it triggered in me a need to focus," Yoakam says. "It caused a very acute mental articulation--of what I was from, the people I was from, and the kind of elements that had shaped my life. I had to demand almost a complete mental recall, and the outgrowth of that was a mental form of picture painting that went on for me, to just begin to address the memory of those people and those places."

Billy Bob Thornton, who had not met Yoakam before casting him as Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade, credits that displacement with giving Yoakam his bite: "You've got to step outside something in order to comment on it," he explains. The two would end up becoming close friends, even forming a film production company that likely will release a movie based on a screenplay Yoakam has written. But the connection isn't a surprising one: Such are the bonds among Southern men transplanted in a foreign land--and artists in exile from their homes.

"The first screenplay I wrote with my partner, Tom Epperson, we wrote when we were in Arkansas and brought it to California, and I can't tell you how horrible it is," Thornton says, laughing. "I wouldn't show it to my best friend or mother, but then I came out here [to L.A.] and was some fuckin' clairvoyant. Shit started speaking through me. I think I grew up in richness, and Dwight did too. We've talked about at length how right the life was.

"You know what a red velvet cake is? We grew up there. That's why this sumbitch is able to write a song and give you a powerful feeling in two or three minutes--[Dwight] sees the details in life. That's why he responded to me. You can watch 30 seconds in Sling Blade, and there's all kind of detail in it. He and I connect because we're great observers of life and the life we know."

Perhaps most important for Yoakam, in the honky-tonks of L.A. he found a partner who would help the 20-year-old boy become a 29-year-old country-music great. To hear producer Pete Anderson tell it, Dwight Yoakam's career was according to plan, mapped out before it even existed. It all corresponded to a scheme hatched one day as the two men sat in Anderson's ramshackle studio in the early 1980s. They dreamt of it all--the flashy suits and the recording deals, the sharkskin boots and leather-seated convertibles, the money and the glory. They were going to be bad-ass rebel cowboys, two James Deans in cowboy hats and expensive suits designed by the great rodeo tailors at Nudie's of North Hollywood, cruising down the Sunset Strip and into the history books, going 0-to-platinum.

"Dwight and I did sit down and almost design his career," Anderson insists now. "It's the greatest movie ever written. I mean, here's a guy who couldn't keep his job as a courier sleeping on my floor in my no-room studio, and we said, 'What if we put out those records and get great press without a record deal? And what if we could get those Nudie suits, and I'd wear sharkskin and get a James Dean image?' He didn't wear his hat when I first met him, but he said, 'We'll be big hillbilly rednecks.' If you were sitting in a room with us, you would have said, 'You're fucking crazy. That's never gonna happen.'"

At first, theirs was a partnership of convenience: They were, like so many hopefuls who move to L.A. and dream of stardom, guys who can almost taste success, only to find out their mouths are full of crap.

Anderson had moved to L.A. from Phoenix, a place where he went to escape the frigid Detroit winters. Los Angeles was a metropolis where he could find fame as a blues guitar hero. "I wanted to be the next Paul Butterfield," he says, invoking the name of the white guitar great who helped introduce Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to white middle-class audiences during the 1960s.

Anderson met Yoakam during their days slumming around the San Fernando Valley honky-tonk scene: Yoakam, playing in bands with names like Kentucky Bourbon, was hustling around such places as the Corral, and Anderson was a guitar-slinger for hire, learning country music from the stage. They were introduced through a mutual friend, a steel guitar player named Bob Bernstein. He gave Anderson a tape of Yoakam's songs; Anderson says he took the tape only to steal the moves of a guy who was performing with Yoakam at the time.

But he became enamored of the songs Yoakam had written. "I listened to Dwight's songs and realized he had great compositional skills," Anderson says. "He was influenced a lot by Lefty [Frizzell] and Merle [Haggard]. He was singing licks and hiccups and everything, and the lyrics were great, but he had no identity. It was like finding brand-new old songs the Stanleys had written."

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