Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere (Interview with Author Don McLeese)


Growing up, I was generally familiar with the music of Dwight Yoakam.  Like most, I knew him as the really skinny country singer who wore super-tight jeans and a cowboy hat pulled low.  I liked whatever I’d heard by him.  When I started working at the local country radio station in high school I became more familiar with his hit songs, but didn’t dig any deeper.  His album “This Time” had been out for a while at that point and I wasn’t aware of any news of anything new on the horizon.

Then, during what must have been my freshman year of college, Dwight Yoakam released “Nothing”, the first single from his upcoming album, “Gone”.  I loved the song.  I was still mostly into whatever “mainstream” music was popular at the time.  This track didn’t really seem country to me.  It was bigger than that.  It seemed old somehow. 

When the album was released, I remember accidentally catching a long CMT special on Dwight and the album.  I remember rambling interviews with him on his tour bus.  I remember a segment where he was driving golf balls off the roof of a building in L.A., along with badass legend Dennis Hopper. 

(Side note: At the time, as still just a kid, I’d only seen Hopper in “Speed”…but knew there was more to him than that.  His involvement with this program prompted me to seek out “Easy Rider”.  The more I learned about Hopper, the cooler Dwight became by association…not that Dwight needed help enhancing the cool factor).

I remember the special program was on several times over the course of a weekend.  I recorded it.  I watched it over and over.  I was fascinated.  Dwight Yoakam was on weird dude!  I hate the celebrity worship culture, but when a celebrity is authentically way out there like that…I can get behind that.

Even though I worked in country radio, I couldn’t stand most country music.  But there was something different about this guy.  Something much deeper and cooler at play here.  “Gone” became one of my favorite records of all time, and Dwight Yoakam became a favorite artist.

He and Marty Stuart remain the only modern “mainstream” country artists that I feature on my Dirty Roots Radio Show.

Don McLeese has written a new book – the first of its kind – about Dwight Yoakam.  McLeese has spent most of his professional life as a music critic, for the Chicago Sun Times through the 80s and the Austin American Sun Times through much of the 90s.  He wrote a column called “Country & Western” for Rolling Stone magazine for a time and has written for most of the national music magazines.  He currently serves as a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. 

We spoke about his new book, “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”


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RYAN MIFFLIN: Tell us a little about the book to start us off.

DON MCLEESE: I’ve always thought that Dwight is a unique artist in that I don’t think there’s anybody who’s been able to achieve such mainstream commercial success, while retaining such a rock edge and dynamic and credibility with rock fans.  Most of what we think of as alt.country or roots rock or whatever, those artists don’t get embraced by the country mainstream.  They sell records in the low thousands.  Dwight has sold 25 million albums.  Probably more than all of the artists considered alt.country combined.

But for some reason, he isn’t revered in the same way that a Gram Parsons has been, or someone like that.  I just think it’s an amazing achievement.  I also like Dwight’s music a lot and I find Dwight himself to be a fascinating character.

I totally agree.  I was aware of him growing up, but my first real exposure was a special CMT program where Dwight was playing golf off of a rooftop in LA with Dennis Hopper.  That in and of itself was pretty different from anything I’d ever seen from a “country star”. 

Yeah, most of them are packaged.  Most of them are polished.  And Dwight’s a character.  He’s been a character from the start. 

I was amazed the first time I interviewed him.  Here’s a guy who has built his reputation as a real honky tonk throwback, doing a lot of drinking songs and things like that.  And it turns out he’s never had a drink of alcohol.  He’s a vegetarian.  This just isn’t the image that you think of when you think of that hard core honky tonker.

What’s it like to interview him?

You don’t really interview Dwight.  You just ask a question and then an hour later you wait for him to stop for breath, basically.  His mind goes a mile a minute in about seven directions at once.

He really is an amazing…I’d say, an amazing “conversationalist”.  But really what he does is monologue, or stream-of-consciousness.  I tried to give some examples of that in the book, rather than chopping it down into bite-sized quotes.  I tried to give some of the flavor of what it’s like just being Dwight’s audience of one.  He was like that the first time I interviewed him ages ago.  He’s just always been like that.  It’s almost like he doesn’t have a regulator or a filter or whatever.  He thinks in really big, broad strokes, if you’re thinking in terms of painting.  He’s a muralist; he’s not a small miniaturist.  And he knows a lot about a lot of stuff.  I mean, he knows a LOT about popular music, not just country stuff.

You talk a lot in the book about his singular vision and I like how you worded it there, “broad strokes”.  You really get a sense of that in his music.

Yeah, there’s a real cinematic quality to his music.  So it isn’t surprising that he moved into music and into acting.  When you get songs like “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, there’s a real majestic soundtrack quality to that sort of thing.  It’s like he’s playing a role even within his three-minute songs.  And he combines really divergent influences in ways that seem totally natural.  It would have been very easy for Dwight just to keep making the same record over and over again and keep presenting himself as some Johnny Horton throwback, or later a Buck Owens throwback.

But you listen to how each album…I mean, you talked about “Gone”, and “Gone” is a totally different album from “This Time”.  They push the envelope in all sorts of different directions.  I just think it’s brilliant.  Dwight isn’t afraid to challenge his audience and he isn’t afraid to surprise his audience.

This is the first book on Dwight Yoakam, right?

That amazed me!  You figure a guy who has done as much as he has, for as long as he has, and has such a loyal fan base...you’d think someone would try to capitalize on that with at least a quickie bio.  You know, a fan bio.  But there was nothing.

That isn’t the reason why I wrote the book.  I signed to do to the book because the University of Texas Press was really interested in an in-depth piece of music criticism.  I was fully intending to find all sorts of other books and long profiles and things and it just struck me that Dwight had been really underserved by journalism.

Dwight has always seemed to be a kind of paradox to me.  As you said, he’s sold 25 million albums, he’s released several albums since the early 80’s, and he’s had a ton of hit songs.  Yet, when people think of modern country stars, no one mentions Dwight Yoakam.  If you ask someone if they like him, they’ll usually say, “Oh yeah, I like his stuff”, but I've never heard a single person who, when asked about their favorite artist, ever said "Dwight Yoakam".  People obviously like him, but he just doesn’t seem to have that top-of-mind awareness.

I think there’s always been kind of an underdog aspect to him. He was never THE guy.  In the book you see that when Garth Brooks came along, it really changed everything.  Garth was THE guy.  And people followed Garth’s lead.  Dwight doesn’t follow ANYONE’s lead. 

There’s a whole movement called neo-traditionalism.  Randy Travis was kind of the standard bearer for that.  He was given credit for being a great vocalist.  Vince Gill is obviously a great vocalist.  Dwight Yoakam is also a great vocalist.  Dwight is not only a great vocalist; he’s a great songwriter, which the others really aren’t. 

Dwight does so many different things so well.  Maybe people take him for granted, maybe he’s just overlooked.  I‘m not sure.

Dwight’s last few albums haven’t fared as well, commercially.  He left Warner Brothers Records and he split with his longtime partner, producer Pete Anderson.  He’s spent a few years focusing on movies and a few years working with small, independent record labels.  But now he’s back with Warner Brothers and working on new music.  What do you think we can expect from Dwight Yoakam going forward?

I think that being back at Warner Bros. is going to do him a whole lot of good commercially.  Even though he got to make the records he wanted to make with New West, they just weren’t a national company.  They couldn’t service him to country radio.

I think that Dwight still has some sort of commercial future at country radio.  People who have heard the new album – and I haven’t heard it yet, they’re not done mixing – but people who’ve heard the new stuff tell me it’s amazing.  And some of the demos that Dwight played me, just things that he’d been putting together, really sounded strong.  Very upbeat.  He’s still a real creative powerhouse.   

I’ve never been able to really predict how something is going to fare commercially, because that’s never been what I’ve cared about.  I just care whether the music is good or not.  And the music I heard him make was really good and from what people have told me about the recordings, I can’t wait to hear it.

“Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” by Don McLeese is published by the University of Texas Press and is available wherever books are sold.  

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