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Yoakam Stays True to Himself, Country Sound

November 20, 1987|BILLIE SUTHERLAND | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — To hear some serious country music, go drop a quarter in just about any jukebox in Bakersfield. If that's too far, you can join the bandwagon of fans who have latched on to a man whose music is hotter than a wildfire fed by Santa Ana winds.

From the silver tips of his gray suede boots to the top of his tan cowboy hat, the Kentucky-born, Ohio-raised Dwight Yoakam exudes hillbilly chic. While one might wonder whether his oh-so-tight britches are pants or paint, precious few wonder anymore about Yoakam's ability to deliver hard-charging honky-tonk songs and make the country music industry sit up smart and listen.

His debut album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." released by Reprise Records in March, 1986, is fast approaching platinum with sales of 800,000 discs. His current gold LP "Hillbilly Deluxe" is hot on its heels after only seven months, with sales near 600,000. The odds of a new artist accomplishing such a feat are minute.

Last spring, Yoakam won the Academy of Country Music's New Male Vocalist Award and was nominated for two Grammys. His video of the hit single "Honky Tonk Man" was chosen best country video at the American Music Awards. The video also won the Gold Medal Award at the New York Film Festival in September, 1986.

Yoakam and his band, the Babylonian Cowboys, have just returned from their first tour of Canada, where they sold out 7 of 10 concert dates. Both albums are certified platinum in Canada.

A third album is expected out in July.

The current Babylonian Cowboys are: lead guitarist Eddie Shaver, drummer Davey Crockett, bass player Taras Prodarniuk, and fiddler Brantley Kearns.

Yoakam will appear Saturday at the San Diego Civic Theatre and a week later at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. The "Hillbilly Deluxe" tour ends in Texas with a Dec. 30 headline concert in McAllen followed by a Fort Worth concert at the 5,000-seat super-honky-tonk Billy Bob's on New Year's Eve.

Yoakam says his success has not been the overnight wonder that it appears to be.

"It took 8 1/2 years before I was received favorably," Yoakam, 31, said. "But at least I was able to play my music."

"As late as the fall of 1985 we were told by some labels that our music was non-commercial. A lot of the things they hold to be commercial sell about one-fifth the amount of those things that aren't," Yoakam said in a telephone interview from his 1928 Spanish colonial home in the Hollywood Hills.

In the mid-'70s, several Nashville labels told him that his ultra-twang and back-to-basics style was unpalatable and therefore would not be suitable for mass consumption.

"There were no banners over the freeway saying 'Dwight Yoakam go home,' " he said. "But I didn't feel there was an opportunity for me in Nashville."

So he went to an unlikely place to launch a career in country music: Hollywood. Success found him when he kept his country music pure and he steadily built a following after playing such Los Angeles spots as the Palomino Club, Club Lingerie and the Anti-Club. These were frequented by a mix of people who were more open and didn't care about how "real" country music ought to sound.

Still, Yoakam, who once attended Ohio State University, says that too much has been made of the so-called rift with Nashville and he doesn't like his reputation of being such a renegade.

"There's been a lot of misrepresentation of what I feel and what I say. I refuse to be fodder for other people's cannons. The greatest impact will be felt by your actions," he said.

His actions, his powerful tenor voice and his band have been influenced keenly by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, "icons" of the Bakersfield-based California honky-tonk sound. "To me, Buck Owens is maybe one of the most overlooked country stylists in the history of honky-tonk music," Yoakam told an interviewer.

Owens had 18 No. 1 hits on the country charts spanning 1962-1970.

Yoakam wrote seven songs and included three cover versions of other artist's songs on each album. Included on "Hillbilly Deluxe," is Lefty Frizzell's 1951 smash "Always Late With Your Kisses," Elvis Presley's 1961 hit "Little Sister" and Grand Ole Opry great Stonewall Jackson's "Smoke Along the Track."

"Songwriting allows you your own voice, it gives you a bit more control over your own destiny," Yoakam said.

"Bury Me," from the first album, is a powerful song he wrote and recorded as a duo with Maria McKee of Lone Justice.

"I wrote 'Bury Me' for my grandfather--and after some personal experiences that wiped away some innocence that stiffened my neck. It expresses the sanctuary that can be found in returning to your roots, your origins."

He said that he wants to make people aware of the "artistic importance of hillbilly music" which he says is the "other parent" to early rockabilly music, alongside the black influences of soul and rhythm and blues.

His Appalachian roots serve as his inspiration, along with memories shaped by his maternal grandparents, he said.

His kinfolks, he says, were strong people. He likely inherited his rough-as-a-cob tenacity from them and his hands-on approach to his music and career reflect that.

"What else do you have besides yourself?" he asked incredulously. "It'd be a tragedy if American people don't realize that self-determination is not a privilege. It's a right. It's not a negotiable commodity. That's like saying 'You're sort of free.' "

He said his greatest satisfaction from his current success is the fact that people buy his records and go to see him perform.

"My greatest joy is the acceptance of other human beings of the artistic endeavor, of myself."

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