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Country Gets A New Kick From L.a.

August 17, 1986|STEVE HOCHMAN

Who would have thought that Los Angeles rock clubs would be the launching pad for a country music revolution?

But that's just what many observers feel is happening in the wake of the dramatic mainstream country acceptance of L.A.-based maverick Dwight Yoakam.

Rejected by the Nashville kingmakers, the 29-year-old Kentucky native found a home in the L.A. rock clubs last year and used that unlikely base to establish his country credibility. Now Yoakam is a bona fide country star. His debut album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." reached No. 1 on Billboard's country charts in June.

And Yoakam's not the only string-tie-clad figure to make a stand in the local rock clubs. Rosie Flores, best known as a member of the female punkabilly band the Screamin' Sirens, recently released a country remake of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin' " on Reprise (the same label that issued Yoakam's album), and country-rockers Tin Star and the Lonesome Strangers have each released albums on the independent Wrestler label.

Perhaps the best recorded roundup of L.A. country's bright lights can be found on "A Town South of Bakersfield," a compilation album released last fall by the independent, rock-oriented Enigma Records.

To Hugh Cherry, a country deejay and historian who has followed California country from the days of the singing cowboys in the '40s, that anthology was an eye-opener.

"I hadn't thought of anything happening (these days) in country here until I heard (the record)," he said. "But it's a milestone album."

Chris Hillman, a country-rock pioneer in the '60s and '70s with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers and currently the leader of the promising Desert Rose Band, is also pleased with what's happening.

"When the Byrds started out it was like it is today (around town)," he recalled. "It's healthy and exciting. Let's see what happens in a year. These young upstarts might do something."

L.A.'s new country contingent is not timid when it comes to criticizing the Nashville Establishment.

"The biggest problem we have right now is in Nashville," said Dan Fredman, co-producer of the "Bakersfield" album and producer of the Tin Star debut. To him, the middle-of-the-road music that dominates the country market is "Nash-trash."

Echoes Katy Mofatt, a Texan who who began her recording career 10 years ago in Nashville, but now lives here: "I know Nashville is looking wistfully to the West, because they're dying. Acts they're putting a lot of money into are not selling records."

Why is the L.A. musical climate healthier than Nashville?

Mofatt believes it's a matter of attitude and environment. Citing her own experience, she said: "They really attempted to smooth me over, tone me down and slick me up. That's why the independent recording scene in L.A. is more appealing. Whatever it is I do, as long as I do it with some purity, it's going to have a podium. I have never felt that way in Nashville."

Yoakam's experience adds further weight to this argument. Though his album--with its unrepentant honky-tonk emphasis--was released through Warner Bros.' Nashville division, it was almost a year after six of the same 10 tracks were issued as an EP on the tiny, independent Oak Records. The two packages even have the same title ("Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc") and cover shot of Yoakam leaning against an old Cadillac.

While deeming himself fortunate to have been finally accepted by the country establishment, Yoakam retains some bitterness over what he went through.

"They were wanting to do the wrong things to us--throw out the production, throw out the band," he said of discussions he had with Nashville labels as recently as last year.

One reason for the more receptive climate in Southern California, according to Yoakam, is the ground-breaking work done in recent years by such cowpunk groups as Rank and File and Blood on the Saddle.

"All those bands opened the door to us," he said recently. "I wanted to test the sincerity of the movement and play pure hillbilly music in front of that audience and they proved open to us."

Is Nashville really that bad?

Jim Ed Norman, a Warner Bros. executive in Nashville, believes the L.A. country contingent tends to over-dramatize relations in the country world. "We're not as thick-headed (down here) as some people think," he said.

Having come from the L.A. music world himself, Norman (a pianist and arranger for Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and Bob Seger, among others) keeps a fond eye on California developments. Signing Yoakam, he maintained, was merely a part of an ongoing search for new talent.

Bonnie Garner, Norman's counterpart at CBS Records in Nashville, concurs. "I don't see any big controversy," she said. "We'll always be looking and listening (to L.A.). We're not that chauvinistic about it. There's not too many people who were born in Nashville."

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