When you think of quintessential Los Angeles musicians, few would point to country titan Dwight Yoakam. He grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, dabbled in Nashville’s barrage of bar bands, then hit the road for California in 1977. He’s been here ever since. With his hillbilly twang, Americana anthems, and rockabilly swagger, Yoakam sounds more at home in Texas, but Hollywood suits him well, as it is here, among the saloon-themed strip malls, ranch homes and still-standing Western movie sets that the country dream remains.
After leaving the country music machine of Nashville, Yoakam headed west to California to stake a claim in the music of the true West, looking to Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound and space cowboy Gram Parsons. But it’s Yoakam’s early days trying to break into the business in L.A. that lit the fire that has fueled his career.
At a time when Nashville record labels were embarrassed by the term “hillbilly” music, Yoakam embraced it. He said he was proud of his hillbilly roots and the music’s legacy. The album would sell two million copies. Learn more in this clip from “Country Music.”
In the early 1980s, Yoakam was a frequent performer at country haunts like the San Fernando Valley’s Palomino, and he also played regular gigs at the Old Corral Bar in Lakeview Terrace, a now-demolished honky-tonk that was also featured in one of the opening scenes of the 1991 blockbuster, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” (Perhaps coincidentally, Yoakam’s song “Guitars, Cadillacs” was playing on the jukebox during the scene where a naked cybernetic Schwarzenegger shows up to the biker hangout.) Yoakam’s amped-up barroom sound stood out against the smooth crooner sounds of the era’s chart-toppers like Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson. Prominent rock acts like the Eagles had become mainstream juggernauts, which only remotely had any country flourishes. But Yoakam was different.
By the early 1980s, Yoakam found friends in an unlikely peer group: punk rockers. As a musical antipode to the big-budget, arena rock largesse, punk clubs gave Yoakam a place to get gritty. “Merge Haggard said that the difference between the country music from Nashville and the country music from the West Coast was that country music in Nashville came from churches, and the country music in the West Coast came from honky-tonks and bars,” Yoakam says.
He was embraced by L.A.’s punk community, and in the early 1980s, he unleashed his honkytonk sound in punk clubs across the city, taking the stage at storied hotspots like Madame Wong’s in Chinatown and downtown L.A.’s artist hangout, Al’s bar. Performing traditional honky-tonk to punk audiences was a punk move in itself, and he says friendships emerged with some of his stagemates. Punks like the crucial L.A. band X, also began to lean toward the twangy side, providing a subgenre that became known as cowpunk. X even rebranded for a while as the Knitters, with singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist John Doe, Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Johnny Ray Bartel on upright bass. Yoakam’s rowdy sound fit right in.
By 1986, Yoakam released his major label debut, “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.,” which was recorded at famed Hollywood recording studios including the historic Capitol Records. It was the breakthrough album that launched a career spanning 30 years of major country hits, and more than 25 million records sold. But some of his recent efforts subtly dig back into his cowpunk roots. On his 2012 album “Three Pears,” which saw collaborations with Beck, he blasts through the barnburner “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.” On 2015’s “Second Hand Heart,” the raucous sound continues with the thick chords of a fast-paced cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” popularized by the Coen brother’s movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the carefree garage rock swing of “Liar,” which Yoakam says was recorded on the first take, flaws and all.
“Artbound” recently caught up with Yoakam on the phone as he was caught in L.A. traffic to discuss a brief history of California country and his punk roots.
On Coming to Los Angeles
I used to always say, born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, but I grew up in California. I came out here with a buddy of mine who had been in the band I had in high school. I dropped out of Ohio State within a year and had been at Nashville for a time.
I was in Nashville, and my gaze kept shifting West. Emmylou Harris actually was a great influence on me moving to L.A., as was the connection to the previous California country music generation, like The Buckaroos and Merle Haggard, that kind of Bakersfield honky-tonk sound. That intrigued me because I knew I was going to do more traditional versions of country-rock.
And Nashville, at that time, there wasn’t anything really going on, live music-wise. In retrospect, now, I realize it was about the publishing. I had things there. There was a lot of songwriting, but I didn’t perceive myself as someone who wrote for other people. I was writing, for myself, to perform the material. So I came West in an old Volkswagen with my buddy, my belongings, and all I had left in my young life.
After job hunting at a loading dock and at a department store, I started playing here. And slowly, within the six years, I worked my way into going out and meeting musicians, like at the old Palomino club in the Valley. I began to form friendships with musicians, and I started drawing up a performing band together. By 1979, I had a band here in L.A. for the first time, and I moved up to Hollywood from Long Beach for the first time. I was beginning to make in-roads and working at clubs. I did a year stint at a place called the Corral — not to be confused with the Corral that was famous in Topanga Canyon. This was a hardcore, blue-collar, hillbilly bar on the corner of Foothill up Walnut/ Angeles Crest area. Right off of little Tujunga Canyon, and Osborne, on the corner behind Hansen dam. And I played there for the better part of a year straight on the off nights of that club. And I really evolved. I was 21 or 22 when I took that job. I started doing demos after that. I worked with a fellow who was a staff engineer at what used to be United Western Studios, but which is now EastWest, one of the famous, historic studios. I was literally making demos in the same room that Brian Wilson did “Pet Sounds” in.
I eventually met Pete Anderson through another performer, and we began collaborating on live performance and he really felt strongly that he understood what I wanted to do. We were of like mind, and so we began making that first EP — we started to do the tracks as best as we could [laying them out in terms of how my acts would fit together] for a six-song EP, and we released it in ’84. And that was before Warner Bros. signed me. I was really lucky to be in the right time and the right place, to land at Warner records. And [label head] Lenny Waronker said, even though I was always selling out of the national division, I was always a child of Burbank, you know? It was shared custody, if you will. Because I live here, I came out of the clubs in L.A. And they saw that.
On Los Angeles’ Country Roots
I had heard about the mythology of California country music. By the time I was in college, the Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman, had his great, magical experiment with country and rock living together. That was all going on, and it led to this scene. And it had always kind of had been here: the West Coast has always had its own version of country-western music.
Merle Haggard once said to me, when we were doing an interview for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they were doing an exhibit on Bakersfield, he said that the difference between the country music from Nashville and the country music from the West Coast was that country music in Nashville came from churches, and the country music in the West Coast came from honkytonks and bars. And it really was about that.
Every 10 years, there’s a cycle, and the young rockers will rediscover their heritage, if you will: the Okies, John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath heritage on the West Coast — the country music that came out of here during the end of the dustbowl and led to the Bakersfield sound — in greater Bakersfield, actually. It’s around all the San Joaquin Valley and its labor camps. But the Bakersfield sound ironically had been recorded in Hollywood, not Bakersfield, for the most part.
So that drew me here, and that was still there. It was in an ebb moment, when I got here in 1977. But by 1978, the beginnings of it, the new births of it were happening.
On connecting to the Los Angeles music scene
I went to a show at the Whisky a Go Go and I was looking around, and [East Coast rockabilly musician] Robert Gordon was playing on tour with the new rockabilly album he had done. He was there in town that night at the Whisky with Link Wray. Billy Zoom, and his rockabilly band, [before X], opened for Robert Gordon that night. And I also ran into a gentleman at [rockabilly label] Rolling Rock Records, Ronny Weiser, he produced the Blasters’ first album. But I became aware that night of this Americana music that was starting to take hold in L.A. It was the next generation of country-rock. Then there was punk morphing into new wave, coming from the U.K. There was this rock stuff coming over here with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. There was the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. So that was something else.
With me, doing my variation of what Linda Ronstadt was doing, and what Emmylou is still doing, and where the Eagles sort of began — I was in that state, musically.
On the Birth of Cowpunk
And that gave way through the bars I was in around through 1980. In 1981-82, I realized there was this scene going on that would be called the cowpunk, for lack of a better term, because it was former punk bands like the Dils who became Rank and File; the Plugz, who became the Cruzados. Dori and the T had been high school kids who had been punkers and decided that they wanted to explore California country music, and they all loved clubs in Bakersfield. And that led to the scene that the band that Pete and I had put together in 1983.
On Playing L.A. Punk Clubs
The cowpunk scene just would allow me to launch myself here. Our energy was very punkish. We had an affinity immediately with them as soon as the downbeat starts. If you go back, you could probably see some clips on YouTube, there are some clips of us in New York City with the Blasters, after 1985. And you’ll see, that we were very raw and emotional in a very punk-like way. The form wasn’t necessarily punk, and the execution musically wasn’t, but the accessibility to the immediacy of the emotion — the emotional intent was very immediately accessible to that audience.
In L.A. we played at the Club Lingerie, Club 88, The Blue Lagoon Saloon, Madame Wong’s, and the Hong Kong Café down there in Chinatown. And Esther [Wong] was upset that I had played a bunch of them, but that was because she wouldn’t book me! I said that I had to play in Madame Wong’s West, and she would say, “No!” And I would say, “Yes, Esther, you didn’t know me, you didn’t book me.” She didn’t like what she saw, so she booked me in the Hong Kong Café. I played all over Chinatown. We played Al’s bar. The same night, Los Lobos and I shared the bill — they played in one room, and we played in the other room.
There was a moment, out here. I shared a bill with the Knitters, which was X’s alter-ego with Dave Alvin on guitar, their country band, with John Doe. And so, it was a great moment of shared expression.
Michael Gilmore, the writer for Rolling Stone, on one night probably in 1985 or 1986 said, “We got to remember this night. I drove to three different night clubs in one night.” He saw Los Lobos in one place, he stopped and saw The Blasters (or maybe The Knitters), out in Lancaster, then he went out to Palomino and saw me — all in the same night. And he said, “You know, we all get to share this moment of music with each other,” and I remember hearing him saying that and thinking, “Wow, he may be right, this moment might not last.” And they don’t — they ebb and flow. California country music always shows up every few years, and reincarnates itself.
On how his early shows influenced his music today
I didn’t really get around to doing my own version of cowpunk until the “3 Pears” album [in 2012], and I took that idea with, again, another L.A. artist, Beck, producing on the last album, who had a heart like mine. [The album] “Second Hand Heart” has a little more of a cowpunk edge to it, as does “Liar” as does “The Big Time,” which really has a stomp to it. The punk feel is there, probably, in the recklessness of my own electric guitar playing, because I’m not very schooled, and I don’t have very great technical acumen. There’s a certain reckless aggression to it that’s free in its spirit, but I have willful intent.
This story was originally published by KCET’s “Artbound.” You can find the original story here.