A Driveway Conversation Changed Things For Dwight Yoakam

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You might have missed it but there was some good news recently. This summer the world welcomed Dalton Loren Yoakam, the son of Dwight Yoakam and his wife Emily Joyce.

Earlier this year, the longtime couple exchanged their vows in a private ceremony in Santa Monica in front of ten people, all of whom were socially distanced and sitting appropriately six feet apart.

Were he alive one could imagine Buck Owens being in the church and bestowing his blessings upon the most favored son and heir apparent of the Bakersfield Sound, the Dwight Yoakam with whom he one dueted on “Streets of Bakersfield.” There was that time Owens called Yoakam’s telephone number and got the singer’s answering machine, only to hear himself singing the words  of “Down On The Corner of Love” played back to him.

”Dwight?” the bemused crooner said somewhat confused. “Are you there?” 

These days Yoakam’s legacy is confirmed with his own radio station on SiriusXM, Dwight Yoakam and The Bakersfield Beat. Inside the walls of the studio that we might refer to as The House That Dwight Built, he’s prone to long rambling discussions that overlay a hyper spin of country classics and a propensity to pick out arcane details that span the history of the Bakersfield Sound.

“Now that’s Mooney steel,” he blurted out one night, recognizing Ralph Mooney in the midst of a conversation about the myriad versions of Owens’ “Down On The Corner of Love.” Yoakam’s words are also the foreword to Chris Hillman’s forthcoming autobiography Time Between (BMG).  Reprising his role in writing the foreword to Hot Burritos: The True Story Of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Yoakam pays tribute to Hillman as a founding father of country rock. “In spite of Chris’ varying degrees of chagrin through the years at being given the title, to me and millions of other fans, he will remain forever immortal as one of the principal architects and a founding father of country rock.”

All of this might not have happened as it played out were it not for a somewhat random encounter in the driveway of an apartment complex on Pacific View Drive in the Hollywood Hills, almost forty years ago.

“Are you Dwight Yoakam?” Yoakam turned around hearing a voice, not sure who was asking and wondering if it might be a bill collector. 

Yoakam had recently moved to Los Angeles and was living in a garage on Pacific View Drive in the Hollywood Hills.  Bill Bentley, at the time a writer for the LA Weekly (and today a columnist for Americana Highways) had been told to look him up by Austin blues guitarist Bill Campbell. “Bentley,” he said, “you gotta meet this guy Dwight Yoakam.. He’s got it.” As fate would have Bentley’s girlfriend and now wife lived in the building.  

The two hit it off and Yoakam invited him to see him at the storied Palomino Club, the epicenter of Los Angeles’ burgeoning country and roots scene. When Bentley left, he had a feeling inside that only happened a handful of times and thought to himself, “There’s no way this guy is not going to be huge. I know it.”

That led to a piece Bentley wrote up for LA Weekly, the first article Yoakam cites for being in a major publication.

I just basically said Dwight Yoakam was the real deal and everyone would be ready for a new star to explode,” Bentley recalled to me. A search on newspapers.com turned up Bentley’s piece which highlighted the struggles of Yoakam and lauded the singer for bringing his brand of real country to his independent EP Guitars, Cadillacs Etc., Etc. (Oak Records).

Yoakam credits Bentley’s coverage to setting in motion events that propelled his career forward. Bentley also secured a gig for him as an opening act for Billy Joe Shaver at Club Lingerie.  “God, that boy can sure write a song,” Bentley quotes Shaver in his story. Pretty soon Yoakam was opening for the Blasters and playing venues like the Blue Lagoon Saloon, Hong Kong Cafe and Madame Wong’s. The piece helped to get the attention of journalists in other cities.

Yoakam, who had emigrated from coal country of Pikeville, Kentucky and gotten rejected by Nashville, was contacted by Sherman Holsey who helped him get signed by Warner Brothers and would later direct his music videos. It was obvious to those who saw him that Yoakam had something special. Bentley had just started working at Slash Records, the home of Los Lobos, X and the Blasters. He introduced him to label president Bob Biggs who immediately recognized Yoakam’s talent.

“Bill I don’t have the ammo with country music radio stations that Dwight Yoakam  is going to need,” Biggs told him. The Blasters’ guitarist Dave Alvin saw Yoakam at the Palaminio and was heard to say: “This kid’s got limos in his future.” 

Yoakam eventually signed with Warner Brothers in Nashville and expanded  his independent EP into a debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The EP cover was black and white but the album had a tinted  color version, making it distinguishable.

As Slash was distributed by Warner Brothers, Bentley got to write a piece for a company newsletter “Words and Music” in which he memorably stated: “Dwight Yoakam: Learn how to spell his last name because you’re going to see it everywhere and there ain’t no U in it.

“‘Bill, you speak Texan,” some label mates would say. “What’s with this country stuff?” 

When Yoakam had an album release party at the Roxy attended by the likes of John Fogerty and Emmylou Harris, people would hear Yoakam play rockified versions of old Bill Monroe songs and a reimagined version of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” not quite sure of what to make of it all. The day after the show people came by Bentley’s desk. One person said, “You know  I never really liked country music.” Bentley’s response: “I would say, “That’s Dwight Yoakam music.’”

I once wrote for a music magazine called Song Hits, a publication once renowned for printing the lyrics of hit songs. Thumbing through the December 1987 issue featuring a cover shared by Bon Jovi and Cinderella, I had forgotten I had written several book reviews about David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. As I turned the yellowing pages and went back in time,  I discovered an interview Dwight Yoakam gave to writer Holly Gleason.

Yoakam had just released Hillbilly Deluxe, the follow-up to Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. By this time, Yoakam had been named the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Male Vocalist of 1987. Yet he was still stung by being rejected by Nashville and criticism about his doing “the same old hillbilly thing.” Interestingly, Yoakam got his music video played on MTV’s Cutting Edge program only to have them stop playing once it got on country radio.

“I have kids come up to me all the time and say, ‘I never really liked country music before,’” Yoakam told her. “And I always tell them the same thing: ‘That’s probably because you’ve never had it presented to you in a way that you could like or that you’ve even heard real country music before.’”

Gleason observed that Yoakam was offering an alternative to the more pop/country artists who’d come to dominate country radio. Yoakam viewed it in the context of his circuitous route to success and building his audience. “It’s always about getting the music to the people, because you’re only as strong as your audience, And the music doesn’t matter if it doesn’t eventually get out to somebody. Those who happened to be in the audience originally were the rockers from Melrose Avenue in L.A.”

In an assessment that seems prescient, Gleason concluded: “No doubt Dwight Yoakam’s groundswell, hard country movement will continue to grow, He’s already been able to convince the rock kids that country isn’t so bad after all and the old time country fans are also finding something of value in his songs, which means that there may actually be one unified country audience if Yoakam has his way.”

The divisions within country still remain and are still being fought in different ways to this day. 

For Yoakam,  five number one albums and over a dozen gold and platinum records have helped assuage the early rejections that he internalized, perhaps hearing the words “Go West, young man” and leading to his own personal manifest destiny.

Looking back, Campbell’s advice was some of the best Bentley received. The other tip he got from the guitarist was that he had to see Gary Clark Jr.  In 2003 Bentley flew to Austin, still struck to this day that Clark was just 18 at the time. 

It was Campbell who made a casual remark one night about the state of the music business that Yoakam ran with. “I always figured it was about  guitars and Cadillacs,” Campbell said. Yoakam made a mental note that he soon turned into a song and the title of his debut. If Campbell had forgotten what he said, Yoakam made sure he remembered when he gave him a gold record.

These days Bentley is busier than ever. A few years ago he published the book Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen that featured photos and stories shared by fans of their  favorite moments in music. In addition to writing his monthly column Bentley’s Bandstand for Americana Highways, he is currently making documentaries, producing a tribute album to Roky Erickson (his second) and writing the booklet for a Jimmie Vaughan box set. 

“All at once,” he told me, “but you gotta stay busy in these weird times.”

A few footnotes to this story. First, as much as Bentley’s championing helped Yoakam, Bentley believes writing about Yoakam helped bring him to the staff of Warner Brothers, a run that lasted twenty years. “I tell Dwight he’s the guy that got me the best gig of my life” Bentley reflects. “Wonderful place and times.” 

The other footnote is about the night Yoakam opened for Billy Joe Shaver at Club Lingerie. The day of the show was a little complicated. Shaver insisted that his band back him. The only problem was that they were still in Austin. Shaver had to work a bit of magic to get them on a flight to Los Angeles to arrive just  in time after Yoakam finished his set. Shaver also handed him a guest list that had seventy-five names on it. That night only a dozen paying people came.

“No one came to see Billy Joe,” Bentley remembers,  “but Dwight saw Eddie Shaver in Billy Joe’s band that night, and later hired him to replace Pete Anderson. Not that anyone could replace Pete. History is a weird thing….it works!”

Driving Billy Joe Shaver to the airport the next morning, Bentley gave him his $500 and apologized about the size of the crowd.

“Gosh Billy I’m sorry about last night,” Bentley offered. 

“Let me tell you something,” Shaver turned his head and shot back. “Boy don’t you ever forget. Pride ain’t nothing.”


3 thoughts on “A Driveway Conversation Changed Things For Dwight Yoakam

  1. Great article!

    I love the quote from Gleason. Dwight always gives credit to Willie, Roger Miller and many others for reconciling rock and country formats. As a Canadian kid growing up in the 1980’s, and remembering how I immediately connected to the hardcore sounds of Guitars Cadillacs and Hillbilly Deluxe (Long White Cadillac track from his first hits album in particular kicked ass), Dwight deserves modern day credit for the “unified country audience” we have today.

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