Hat's off

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

They were finally introduced at a place called Ryan's Roundup in the Valley, where Anderson was holding down a steady gig. Yoakam came up on the bandstand and played a couple of Haggard songs. But Yoakam had no interest in being a covers act: He had his own songs--21 in all, every single one of which he'd wind up recording on his first four albums for Warner Bros./Reprise--and he wanted to perform them. He didn't want to end up just another barroom cowboy playing for beer money in the Valley. He could have stayed in Ohio or Kentucky for that.

He and Anderson became partners in the early '80s; Anderson would go on to produce every record Yoakam has released to date. He learned the songs and helped Yoakam put together a four-piece band, while Yoakam tried to get the band regular gigs around town, playing places where they didn't mind if you did your own songs every now and then. Yoakam had no illusions about making it in Nashville. He knew he'd never succeed in a place that had buried his heroes--Haggard, Cash, Owens--underneath rhinestone tombstones. He still wanted to be a star, and he would even pitch his songs to Nashville in 1981--only to find his advances rebuffed. He finally figured out he'd have to strike platinum in L.A. or disappear trying.

"From that point on," Anderson says, "he was very frustrated, because he had these good songs and wasn't getting anywhere. He said, 'I'll put these songs under a bed and live with my dad in Louisville and go back to college.'"

In 1984 they began putting out those songs on their own and wound up with a deal with Warner Bros., which would re-release Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and, eventually, give Yoakam and Anderson the longest leash in country music. Where most country acts are forced by Nashville to write their hit singles over and over, Yoakam was allowed to tackle everything from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" to the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman R&B classic "Little Sister" to the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" to Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic "Rocky Road Blues" to Elvis' cheesy anthem "Suspicious Minds." He became country music if country means only a mass of land; raised on that old radio, he knew how to speak a thousand languages.

"We had signed to Warners in the fall of '85, and 'Honky Tonk Man,' the first single, was just released," Yoakam recalls. "We did a release party for the album in March at the Roxy, and Emmylou Harris and John Fogerty came over, and so did [former Warner Bros. Records president] Lenny [Waronker]. He called me the next day--I didn't know the man, I knew who he was, but I had never met him--and he said, 'I want to tell you something: I have a feeling that you'll have a career that'll span many years.'

"At that point, I didn't know if I was gonna be able to pay the bills for many months, let alone have a career. I was just feeling, at 29 years old, lucky to even finally have just the fingerhold of a record deal afforded me. And he said, 'Over the course of time, I want you to remember something: Your voice is the only voice that matters.'"

By the time of This Time in 1993, Yoakam would find his voice. If the earlier records had been memories of home, This Time was the first look at what lay ahead--a darker Dwight, the spurned lover whose ex-girlfriend (Sharon Stone) was trashing him all over town by calling him a "dirt sandwich," the honky-tonker who was comfortable in rock-and-roll leather. Such songs as "King of Fools" and "Home for Sale" were classic Buck Owens, and the rest were thoroughbred country, but "Fast as You" and "Wild Ride" hinted at the Yoakam aching to bust out of the gate. Even the arrangements had grown more spacious, strings and organs thickening the mix. It's the sort of record every artist wants to make once in a career, then spends a lifetime trying to live up to.

"When we got ready to do This Time, Dwight's voice had changed a little bit, and he had been with Sharon Stone and gone through some romantic things that caused him to write some different things," Anderson says. "He came up with songs like 'A Thousand Miles from Nowhere' and 'Fast as You.' They were very sarcastic songs, and he came of age as the new Dwight Yoakam. Gone was just an extension of that. They're where he's gonna go as an adult."

Buck Owens was a forgotten man when Dwight Yoakam came along and made him a star once more. He had long ago been killed by television, done in by Hee-Haw. In the blink of an eye, one of country music's true greats became a hillbilly has-been, the country-music Amos to Roy Clark's Andy. Not that Owens hadn't known what he was in for, but he could hardly turn down the money--hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple days' worth of taping every year.

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