Dwight Yoakam and that old-style L.A. country

Unable to gain traction in Nashville, Dwight Yoakam went out West and found fame in Southern California

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 28, 2011 


    Dwight Yoakam, Jack Ingram, Easton Corbin, Devil Makes Three, Truth and Salvage Company, Jade Jackson, Honeymoon

    11:30 a.m. Saturday

    Pozo Saloon, 90 W. Pozo Road, Pozo

    $45 to $55

    438-4225 or www.pozosaloon.com

As Dwight Yoakam watched the “Terminator 2” scene that features his song “Guitars, Cadillacs,” he noted an odd coincidence.

The bar in which the scene took place had hosted his music before.

“That was filmed in a place called the Corral — it’s torn down now — in Lakeview Terrace, right out in the foothill area of the northeast end of the (San Fernando) Valley,” Yoakam said. “It’s an old cop-cowboy bar out there, and I played there for almost a year.”

In the scene, the buffed cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger enters the honky tonk bar naked. Then, as Yoakam’s song plays on a jukebox, the Terminator walks up to a pool-playing biker and matter-of-factly says, “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle.” A fight ensues and the cyborg emerges from the bar with a leather outfit just in time for George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” to kick in.

While that scene is perhaps the most memorable from “T2” — and from Schwarzenegger’s storied action film career — it’s memorable to Yoakam because he played the Corral three nights a week when he was trying to break through as a country act in Los Angeles.

“In fact, Delaney Bramlett came in the night that John Lennon was killed and sat in with me because he wanted to sing a Beatles song,” said Yoakam, who will headline the Pozo Stampede on Saturday.

It was appropriate that his first foray into film would include “Guitars, Cadillacs,” a semi-autobiographical tune about his time in Los Angeles.

“I was in L.A., wandering around,” Yoakam said by phone. “I’d been here nine years, driving air-freight trucks, furniture-moving trucks, trying to get somebody to notice the music.”

While Yoakam has always been a traditional country music singer, his career has not been so traditional. He’s a country singer in L.A. who acts in movies and got his start sharing the bills with punk acts.

“I’ve often said I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio and grew up in California,” he said.

Having first picked up a guitar at age 6, Yoakam grew up playing music. And after a short stint at Ohio State University, Yoakam — inspired by acts such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard — decided to pursue a career in country music.

But in the era of crossover acts like Kenny Rogers and Johnny Paycheck, Nashville wasn’t interested in Yoakam’s old-school twang. So he and a guitar-playing friend moved to Los Angeles, hoping the West Coast would welcome them like they welcomed Emmylou Harris.

“He left after about three months,” Yoakam said. “I didn’t have a car and stayed.”

While he was inspired by the so-called Bakersfield Sound that Owens, a Bakersfield native, made popular, Yoakam made L.A. his base.

“Ironically, the Bakersfield Sound was recorded — 90 percent of it, anyway — in Hollywood, at Capitol Studios on Vine Street,” he said. “So it really is Greater Bakersfield.”

After years of toiling around L.A., he finally landed a record deal, releasing the album “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” in 1986. His first single — a cover of the Johnny Horton song “Honky Tonk Man” — seemed to announce his arrival to those in Nashville who had rejected him.

Yoakam suggested that might have played into his decision to record the song. But mostly, he said, it was his admiration for the original.

“Since I was a kid, I was really taken with Johnny Horton,” said Yoakam, who had covered several Horton songs live before then. “We cut that track and it was pretty swinging.”

The song was the first of 14 top-10 hits, which would also include “Little Ways,” “I Sang Dixie” and “You’re the One.”

While Yoakam was making inroads into country music, he also had cred with the punk and rock communities. Part of it had to do with his rock covers, including “Little Sister” by Elvis Presley, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen and “Train in Vain” by the Clash.

Meanwhile, his hit cover of the Blasters song “Long White Cadillac” was a nod to his days with punk crowds and acts.

“They dubbed it, at the time, ‘cowpunk,’ ” Yoakam said. “The punk era had morphed into New Wave by ’82 or ’83, and some of the kids who were former punk rockers decided hillbilly music was kind of cool.”

While having his song in “T2” was his first involvement in film, it wouldn’t be his last. After achieving fame as a musician,

Yoakam—who had participated in drama in high school—began appearing in films.

He received some of his best early accolades as an abusive drunk in the 1996 film “Sling Blade,” written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

“I was the least likely person to be a bully,” he said with a laugh.

Though he hasn’t released an album since 2007’s “Dwight Sings Buck,” a tribute to Owens, new Yoakam music is on the way.

“I’m hoping to record this summer or fall for something that’s out next year,” he said. “I’m writing a lot.”

He’s also been working with alternative rocker Beck on a project. And he’s still acting. One project has him teaming up with Thornton again.

“Billy wrote a new screenplay titled ‘Jane Mansfield’s Car,’ ” he said. “And it’s supposed to star myself, Billy Bob and Dennis Quaid as three brothers in 1969, who are ex-World War II vets wrestling with their own families and lives on a large cattle ranch in western Alabama.”

He and Thornton have also worked together musically. Both performed backing vocals for “The Wind,” the album Warren Zevon made in 2003 as he was dying of cancer.

“He did a lot of recording at Billy Bob Thornton’s home studio,” Yoakam remembered. “And we were there one night and Billy said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this.’ It was after everybody had left, and he pulled up ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door.’ It was Warren doing it, and (Thornton) said, ‘That tears you up.’ ”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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