Dwight Yoakam: Outlier Country

Thirty years after making hillbilly music safe for rock fans, the Bakersfield-sound flamekeeper examines how his nonconformist roots led to stardom.

Photos by Emily Joyce

There aren’t many country artists who could turn a song by an iconic punk band into a duet with a bluegrass icon, but Dwight Yoakam has never let convention stand in the way of his muse. Whether performing the Clash’s “Train In Vain” with Ralph Stanley, duetting with Buck Owens on “Streets Of Bakersfield” (Yoakam’s first No. 1), adding vocal filigrees alongside Flaco Jiménez’s accordion on Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” or crafting timeless originals like “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” (from 1993’s now-classic This Time), his career has always defied both genre constrictions and music-biz norms. On his latest album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars …, Yoakam even gives “Purple Rain” a bluegrass transformation, reaffirming that it’s possible to celebrate tradition while stretching boundaries.

From the start, Yoakam’s Bakersfield twang and hip-swiveling swagger straddled what Vanity Fair called “the divide between rock’s lust and country’s lament.” Considered a co-founder of L.A.’s cowpunk scene, the self-taught guitarist fused honky-tonk, rockabilly, punk and bluegrass into a sound described as “Bill Monroe meets the Ramones.” He scored his first hits with 1986’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., an expansion of his self-financed, indie-label debut EP. When MTV aired his “Honky Tonk Man” video as its first-ever country clip, pronouncing it cool for rockers to dig this “honky-tonk hillbilly,” they helped boost the lanky cat in the cowboy hat, skin-tight Levi’s and Cuban-heeled boots to superstardom. (In the process, they also helped refocus some attention on traditional country... Sign In to Keep Reading

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