Hat's off

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

And besides, Owens had pretty much decided to hang up his hat anyway and retire in Bakersfield--a dusty flatland not too different from Owens' Texas home in Sherman. When he turned 50 in 1980, he told his band they were free to find other gigs, that he'd had it with touring--his body was weary from all that traveling, his voice weary from all those sound checks. And his radio business had proven lucrative, having grown from a few stations in Phoenix and Bakersfield into an empire numbering nearly 160.

Owens had heard of Yoakam--he'd read him dropping his name in newspaper articles, heard how Yoakam kinda sorta copied his hiccuping, diving vocal style and kinda sorta stole some of those old arrangements. He liked what he heard, admired his respect for the old-timers; so few of the up-and-comers out of Nashville knew of Johnny Cash, much less Johnny Horton, whose "Honky Tonk Man" Yoakam had covered early on.

During a 1987 tour, Yoakam showed up in Owens' Bakersfield offices unannounced. A grateful Owens returned the favor by coming to Yoakam's show--and listening as the band performed a few Buck Owens classics; by the end of the night, Owens was on stage himself, born again in the adulation of acolytes. He would end up touring with Yoakam and k.d. lang in 1988 and '89; Yoakam and Owens would end up recording together as well, on Homer Joy's "Streets of Bakersfield," which Owens originally recorded in 1972; their rollicking duet became a top-10 country hit. Yoakam would also get Owens back into the studio for 1988's Hot Dog! Together the pair had a hell of a time--even riding around the Hollywood Hills once on one of Yoakam's motorcycles. It scared Buck to death.

"I think Dwight is an acquired taste," Owens says. "When people first hear him sing, if they don't know anything about him, they think, 'Hmmm.' But then they begin to find out this is who he is and this is what he does, being from Kentucky and from that area. Hell, he was a rock-and-roller in high school. He's got a picture where he's lying across a floor and got on some real green green pants and a shirt, and I said, 'You oughta burn that thing.' Dwight's a pretty damned good little performer. He knows a lot more about music and how to get things in that record than most anybody. Dwight knows what he wants.

"I'll tell you one thing about Dwight--he loves country music. But he's not a one-dimensional person. He likes Cajun country music, Tex-Mex, everything--I've never seen someone so close to what I like. He and I could be father and son. I tease him about his mother traveling a lot before he was born, just to have fun."

Owens also says he gives Yoakam a hard time--and not always to have fun--about fooling around in the movies. To Owens, Yoakam is too talented a musician to waste his time acting; he needs to be writing, paying more attention to the business of music. "I told him, 'Your damn record career's gonna go up in smoke,'" Owens says. "I used to tease him: 'We already had James Dean.'"

But Yoakam has not abandoned his craft--far from it. Come next month, he will release his first Christmas album--So Come On, Christmas, which features a couple of new songs and some fascinating reworkings of old standards--and he has already begun working on an album of all-new material. Indeed, he has spent the months while shooting The Newton Boys writing his next record as well--on dozens of notepad sheets he keeps stuck in a hotel-room drawer.

Yoakam hadn't even brought his guitar and amp with him to Austin when filming began on The Newton Boys in April. He had planned to keep his head in the script, but found rather quickly that the isolation of being away from home was too much to bear, so he started writing--and within weeks, dozens of pages had poured out. He pulls the sheets from the drawer as though they were thousand-dollar bills, marvels at the volume, then shakes his head and grins.

"Being here, it's almost as if I'm a prisoner to circumstance, and my mind instinctively starts dealing with an alternative form of expression: music," he says. "And I tend to personally express myself through music in my own way. It's almost as if it's sort of a digression to being a kid at home, waiting to grow up. It's almost as if I'm waiting to graduate high school, to finally leave home, but now, at this point in my life, I'm a little more focused on what it is that I'm able to do as a means of expression. I wasn't writing heavily then, but I was certainly exploring music as a means of eclipsing my surroundings.

"I thought I was gonna be too occupied with--and needed to be too focused on--the task at hand: the performance and the character that I was doing. But I found myself being stimulated, I think, by just, again, the kind of ancillary elements of this process of being removed from my own environment, and being stationary for a long period of time. And that's something that's kind of mental and cerebral. It's just kind of responding to a noise that I hear in my head."

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