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Hats off to Buck

Dwight Yoakam honors mentor Buck Owens and Fred Durst (what?!?) does his part too.

September 01, 2007|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

DWIGHT YOAKAM is not driving the tractor, he's just sitting on it, hunkered all alone under a bright blue sky tinged with a hint of encroaching twilight. Wearing faded overalls and a red Shell trucker cap, he gazes pensively at a sprawling modern ranch house off to his right. Beyond him are fields crosshatched by white picket fences, dotted with oak trees and ringed by shadowy mountains.

The scene is forlorn and a little unsettling -- just what the singer-songwriter wants for his video for "Close Up the Honky Tonks," a country classic recorded by Buck Owens in 1964. It's the first single from "Dwight Sings Buck," his tribute to the late singer, songwriter and business mogul, due Oct. 23. The romantic lament is slower and more doleful than Owens' spunky version; the effect Yoakam and director Fred Durst are after is what both call "minimalist loneliness."

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So close up the honky tonks

Lock all the doors

Don't let the one I love go there any more

Close up the honky tonks

Throw away the key

Then maybe the one I love will come back to me.

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"It's about the emptiness at the end of a relationship, in this case specifically the aloneness of living with someone you no longer really share a love with," Yoakam explains about the video's concept during a break in shooting at this rustic-yet-luxe wood-and-stone home in Westlake Village.

Obliging a photographer, he's now dressed in proper country-singer attire: near-fatally tight faded jeans, white shirt with sparkly cuff links, denim jacket, gorgeous tan cowboy boots embellished with the ace of spades. "It's just the ghost of a love."

As the farmer, whose name is Shell, in this "metaphorical story," Yoakam spends much of the day conjuring up the contemplative resignation of a man haunted by the absence of his once-happy marriage.

But the singer-songwriter himself is preoccupied by different memories -- reminded in his solitude on the tractor, in the bathroom, at the dinner table, of Owens, his close friend who at age 76 died in his sleep on March 25 last year after performing that night in his Bakersfield nightclub/museum, the Crystal Palace.

The tribute is "a way for me to say I loved him, and I loved his music," Yoakam, 50, says. Their relationship was "part friend, part sibling, and a whole lot surrogate parent." Their lives had intertwined since 1988, when Yoakam, then a newly minted hit-maker, talked his idol out of retirement to duet on Owens' signature "Streets of Bakersfield," which became Yoakam's first No. 1 country single.

Although Yoakam has proved adept with a variety of roots and rock genres, his style drew much from the honky-tonkin' Bakersfield sound that Owens pioneered. Still, he had never recorded any other Buck tunes and hadn't planned to, until Owens' death prompted this album.

Recording it proved fraught with unexpected emotion.

"I was over the shock of Buck being gone, but I didn't realize that I'd be so haunted during the process of making the record," says Yoakam, who began work on "Dwight Sings Buck" about nine months after Owens died and in the wake of a long world tour. "And there are moments today that I feel a little bit haunted by Buck."

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A personal touch

The daylong shoot is running behind, as crew members hustle to set up and tear down different scenes, and peripheral concerns such as media interviews interrupt the flow. Carrying his silver thermos of tea like a talisman, Yoakam is calm and intensely focused, yet slightly distant, at once in the moment and far, far away.

Although "Dwight Sings Buck" includes faithful renditions of the wry "Act Naturally" and the rollicking "Love's Gonna Live Here," "Close Up the Honky Tonks" is among the tracks Yoakam puts his own stamp on. Changed from Owens' up-tempo shuffle to an expansive, mid-tempo ballad evoking '70s Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers, with perhaps a touch of Merle Haggard melancholy, it has an undercurrent of quiet despair.

Durst immediately envisioned a slightly surreal scenario to represent that mood. "My goal is to get Dwight to act in the video, not just be the [musical] performer, and he hasn't done that" in his previous videos, says the Limp Bizkit frontman turned director. "He was purposely not mixing the two. So this is pretty exciting for me, because I think he has a lot of presence."

The erstwhile rap-metal king has directed videos for his own band as well as for acts including Korn, Staind and Puddle of Mudd, but recently he's concentrated on features. In May, his directorial debut, "The Education of Charlie Banks," won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed, Durst wanted to do this video because he's recruiting Yoakam the actor for his next film project. (The singer-songwriter has appeared in such films as "Wedding Crashers," "Panic Room," and "Sling Blade.")

They share an agent at the William Morris Agency, and that's how Yoakam learned of Durst's abilities.

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