Dwight Yoakam: Yoakam Has Image and Style

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Since his emergence in 1985 as a bluntly outspoken advocate of hardcore honky-tonk music, a post-war musical style he recreated by combining startling, authenticity with an edge of hip, urban 1980’s sensibility, Dwight Yoakam has carved out a niche for himself in modern country music. We may see Travis clones, Strait clones, or even Emmylou clones, but so far no one has come along emulating Yoakam in image or style.Since his emergence in 1985 as a bluntly outspoken advocate of hardcore honky-tonk music, a post-war musical style he recreated by combining startling, authenticity with an edge of hip, urban 1980’s sensibility, Dwight Yoakam has carved out a niche for himself in modern country music. We may see Travis clones, Strait clones, or even Emmylou clones, but so far no one has come along emulating Yoakam in image or style.

As strong an identity as he has established as a performer his knack for making a fashion statement with ripped jeans, or capturing the musical imprint of a past era with covers of such classics as “Ring of Fire” or “Honky Tonk Man,” reflects only a part of his ability to capture the ear and imagination of an audience. Yoakam is also a gifted songwriter of unusual vision, with hits like “I Sang Dixie,” “I Got You,” “Little Ways,” and “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23” to his credit.

The 34 year old says he rarely writes while touring, finding the demands of performing every night and writing too opposed to juggle simultaneously.

“The road is not a conducive environment for me to write songs in, probably because I’m there as a performer, not as a creative person. The sheer enormity of functioning on the road, going from hotel to hotel, city to city, and maintaining the vocal presence necessary to continue performing means on the days off I need to rest my voice. It’s also not conducive to writing because I write with my voice. I accompany myself on the guitar, but I create melodies vocally.”

“I sit in a room and do melodic riffs vocally with no words, almost like scat singing. Then I kind of let my mind just float and start merging rhythmic vowel sounds over it, to introduce syntax to the melody. That almost happens simultaneously.

“Then I like to come up with a thesis statement, a theme so I can step back and focus on an intellectual perspective, based on whether the melody is melancholy to me or whatever, setting some stylistic parameters. What I then start dong is painting visuals in my head. I like creating imagery.”

And how does he know when a song is finished?

“I write in a very fragmented fashion. I don’t really ever complete songs in one sitting. Then I’m not burned out by the last verse, just doing something to get done and shortchanging the song. A day or two later I come back and I’m fresh and pick it up. It allows me the perspective of time. I like to write in pieces. Sometimes I’ll combine pieces of two songs.

The lean, blue-eyed singer also resists the notion of being too structure about planning ahead to write, but he admits that he follows certain habits that seem effective. “I’ll tell you this. I like to write in the later afternoon.

I’ve realized that seems to be my most creative time. I’m in my house alone and I always go to the same room. I don’t do this everyday at 4:00, but it’s a contemplative time of day for me I guess.

“Now anything I start then I’ll lay aside, and if I’m excited about something I’ll go back and pick it up later in the evening, but I rarely would start anything then. Late at night, just before I go to bed is a good time for me.”

Yoakam concludes by saying that his ideas come from the world at large and what he’s exposed to in the course of daily living. He comments that while many of his songs are inspired by or based on personal experience, he often changes the specific details from the literal event, whereas “the expression of the emotions is certainly literal to what was actually felt at the time.”

Although he was raised in Ohio, Yoakam’s family heritage is the coal mining country of Kentucky, and the influence of the mountains is a strong presence in songs like “Floyd Country,” “South of Cincinnati,” Miner’s Prayer,” or “Bury Me.” It’s not surprising then that when talking about early writing influences, the subject of bluegrass music arises.

“When I really started to listen, to ‘stare’ at a record and listen to those lyrics and comprehend them, it was bluegrass music. People like the Stanley Brothers or Flatt and Scruggs. I tend to write like that still, even though I’m not dealing with any bluegrass topics lyrically. It’s about what I heard as a child, those sounds. Personal memories of my grandfather and the people in that culture.

“I like the irony that’s always been part of bluegrass in that it sets melodic, lilting melodies and upbeat tempos with the most tragic lyrics. Bluegrass was a part of what gave rock and roll part of its edge. It was the least palatable form of country music to the urban public and the music business. It runs the risk of always offending some people by being so steeped in the heritage it reflects. By God, it’s hillbilly and it makes no apologies for it. You need that sense of purity in an aggressive art form to maintain its energy.”

Yoakam usually comes into a new project with a number of original songs, as well as outside material. Because he is a fairly prolific writer, a certain amount of weeding out goes into selecting the right songs for an album.

“My producer Peter Anderson and I look at everything I’ve written and sit down and he grabs a guitar and starts embellishing with fill riffs, getting a perspective on arrangements and a direction. I just kind of march through the material. The outside stuff we can both look at in a detached fashion and select what works.

“The determining factor is what thematic statement I want to make with the record. Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room was very thematic. Musical themes are more prevalent than lyrical themes.”

As an artist who possesses a very clear vision of his creativity, the Kentucky native has definite opinions about his goals as both a performer and a songwriter.

“The goals are the same, but I allow them to live separate lives, have their own autonomy. They’re individual entities with their own parameters. When I’m writing I maintain a deliberate focus on writing a well crafted song. I have a luxury in knowing that I’ll be the performer. I can set that aspect side and address it later. The goods come together when I sit down after a song is completed, when I go back and just play it as a performer.”

Asked if he would describe himself as a singer first or a writer, Yoakam reflects.

“I said earlier I’m a singer/songwriter. I started out writing songs to give myself something to sing, as opposed to a person who as a songwriter writes knowing someone else will sing that song. I can never imagine people who aren’t singers who write. That always seemed foreign to me. I know there are people who write who don’t sing, but it baffles me. How can they understand how it functions? I know they do, there are some great lyricists who don’t play music. If I thought I wouldn’t perform. I guess I wouldn’t write. I’d hate to choose between the two.”


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