Before he was a country music superstar, he was a Northland High School student with big dreams.
Editor’s note: In honor of Dwight Yoakam's 63rd birthday on Wednesday, Columbus Monthly is republishing this 1999 profile of the Columbus native.
Dwight Yoakam didn't recognize Tom Murphy, but that's not surprising. After all, 25 years is a long time. Besides, Yoakam rarely used the Track Record studio in North Hollywood, which Murphy owns. But on this day in January, Yoakam had decided to record two new tracks there to supplement his collection of greatest hits from the ’90s, called Last Chance for a Thousand Years, his latest release. But unknown to Yoakam, Murphy was a blast from his past. “I said to him, ‘Remember Owl Recording Studio?' and he looked up all surprised, like, 'Wow!'”says Murphy.
Yoakam indeed knew Owl. It was the first studio he ever stepped into as a 17-year-old Columbus kid with big hopes and a developing voice. Murphy, it turned out, also had been the owner of Owl, which was located on Sunbury Road near Agler Road. “I couldn't believe it; it was one of those moments where the world kind of turns in on itself and creates this little wrinkle in time," Yoakam says. “I was literally just out of high school. We'd scraped together some money, and my dad was with me in this little eight-track studio on Sunbury. I cut four or five songs there—experiments in terror is what they were. I hope those tapes are subterranean now."
Yoakam has become a bit more comfortable in front of the microphone in the 25 years since his first encounter with Murphy. He's now one of the most successful and influential recording stars in country music. Of his 12 albums, eight have been certified gold. He's received 16 Grammy Award nominations, winning twice. In addition, Yoakam has achieved a growing reputation as an actor, highlighted by a critically acclaimed supporting role in the Academy Award-winning movie “Sling Blade.”
Six months after his West Coast encounter with Murphy, Yoakam came to Columbus. It had been three years since he'd last performed for his hometown crowd, and when the silhouette of a long, cool cat in a hat appeared at the corner of the Schottenstein Center stage July 3, the wave of female shrieks and good-old-boy, rebel yells were for an international star, not a hometown boy.
As usual, Yoakam was dressed to kill in his infamously snug blue jeans, stretched like a sausage casing down over a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots, with a black, waist-length Western jacket and, of course, his trademark cowboy hat, reportedly the very same hat he's worn for about 20 years. For devotees, it's a buff-colored maxi-felt Silver Belly with a Rodeo Cowboy Association Bullrider crown and a four-inch brim-dipped heavily front and back-made by the American Hat Co. and purchased at Manuel's Western Wear on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood for less than $50 in the late 1970s.
He wears it pushed down to the bridge of his nose, keeping his eyes hidden under the brim like some “High Plains Drifter”character, working the crowd seductively with his postures and gestures, cocking a knee, wiggling a leg or thrusting his hips with an Elvis-like swagger. And even though the holiday-weekend crowd was small, making the cavernous arena feel like a barn dance, their enthusiasm was undeniable. With every sideways glance from under his brim, every now-you-see it, now-you-don't move, the women squealed with delight. All, that is, except his mother, Ruth Ann, a Hilliard-area resident, who was sitting in the audience at the Schott. She's not thrilled with the sex-symbol part of his image. “I'd rather he just stand there and sing, and maybe pat a foot," she says. “But even when he was young, he could not stand still when he was singing or playing his guitar."
Under the façade, however, is someone quite contrary to the silent, simmering, shit-kickin' heartbreaker he seems to portray. Yoakam says he's never smoked nor indulged in alcohol, and remains devoted to his Christian roots. His face is youthful, not tough, disguising his 42 years—though when he takes off his hat, his thinning hair restores a bit of maturity. His conversation meanders with a unique philosophical bent—he's a self professed “psychobilly” who sometimes rambles about the effects of birth order, society's shamelessness "from the top of the parapets on down," or how "Everything in life is about momentary absolutism—it's all absolutely that until it's not any longer."
And though he's never been married, Hollywood columnists report Yoakam and his girlfriend, actress Bridget Fonda, are getting serious.“I stepped aside from it; in my 20s and early 30s, I knew this was my mistress—my music, this career, and touring," he says. “It wouldn't have been conducive to a healthy domestic life. There probably would have been a broken marriage or two. But that's another part of my life I still. ... I would like to have kids."
David Yoakam and Ruth Ann Tibbs were married in Columbus, David's hometown, at the Beechwold Church of Christ on Morse Road on Sept. 3, 1955. When the Army sent David to Korea a few months later, Ruth Ann, by then pregnant, moved back home with her parents in the tiny village of Betsy Lane, just off U.S. Rt. 23 in the coal-mining hills of southeastern Kentucky. Their first son, Dwight David Yoakam, was born Oct. 23, 1956, in a Pikeville, Kentucky, hospital, and, according to his mother, he began honing his pipes almost immediately. "He had colic for three months," she says.
Nine months later, Dwight's father returned home—bringing with him a guitar. "'I bought this little black-and-white Kay guitar from a GI going home," says David Yoakam. “I spent about 13 months at it and didn't learn to play a thing, so I just stuck it in a corner. But as soon as Dwight was old enough, he started dragging it around behind him. I have pictures of him holding it up, where the guitar is bigger than him."
Shortly after his discharge from the Army, Yoakam moved his family back to Columbus, setting up residence on North Fourth Street near Iuka Park. Two more children, Ronald and Kimberly, were born within the next two years, and in 1960, the Yoakams purchased their first home, on Renwood Place near Linden Park. David Yoakam worked various jobs to support his family, including stints as a milkman, an insurance salesman and an assembler at Westinghouse, sometimes attending Bliss College at night. "He had half a career in the Army, when my mother and I wrecked that for him," says Dwight. “But I never knew him to go even a day without working."
For a short time, David Yoakam even tested his entrepreneurial spirit, buying a Texaco Station at the corner of Indianola Avenue and Oakland Park. Yoakam's Texaco was in operation from 1962 through 1965. “The big deal then was to stick a dip-stick rag in our hip pockets," says Dwight. “My brother and I thought we were going to be the world's greatest pump jockeys."
Often, weekends were spent heading south to visit his maternal grandparents, Luther and Earlene Tibbs (his paternal grandparents both died when Dwight was young). "When my parents said, 'We're going home this weekend,' it meant we were going to Kentucky," says Dwight. “We were taillight kids, dumping onto Rt. 23 with everyone else who had come north to work in the factories, and would ride back to Kentucky on the weekends."
The bluegrass, mountain influence left a deep impression on Yoakam, as evidenced by the number of songs he later devoted to the region—there were "Miner's Prayer," "Readin', Rightin', Rt. 23," "Floyd County" and others. “Dwight really idolized his mother's dad," says David Yoakam. “And Lute was a good person. He'd come in from the coal mines and just be dog-tired, and the kids would climb all over him like a tree. And he'd just let them. He never fussed."
And singing, it seemed, was a constant companion, says Ruth Ann. "It was a family pastime," she says. “We were always singing; on trips we'd harmonize. My mom would always sing hymns. Sometimes we'd sing the popular country songs."
Country music provided the soundtrack to the Yoakam home, through either the record player or the radio, tuned to WMNI. Dwight Yoakam says his father's copy of Songs that Made Him Famous, by Johnny Cash, and his mother's copy of a greatest-hits collection by Johnny Horton were two albums, in particular, that "had a profound influence on my life, musically. I remember just sitting and staring at the turntable listening to Johnny Horton's voice."
And, of course, a new sound—rock and roll—was putting a charge into the air. “I was a television baby, born in '56," Yoakam says. "Elvis exploded on television in 1956. So I grew up watching these guitar-slingers on television, as opposed to gun-slingers the previous generation had been infatuated with."
Dwight's formal musical education began when he was a fourth-grader at McGuffey Elementary. He'd tripped and fallen on his father's Kay guitar, breaking it. The following Christmas, however, Dwight got the first guitar of his own, as well as some instruction. “Just as soon as Dwight learned a couple of chords, that's all he needed, and he started to write and sing his own songs, and he never put it down again," says his mother.
Within weeks, Yoakam had written his first song. “One day he came up to me pickin' and singin' this song he wrote," says Dwight's father, David. “It was called 'My Daddy Was Killed in Vietnam,' or something like that. He was 7 or 8. I got a laugh out of it.”
"He always had a flair," says David Yoakam. “'I call it being a ham. But I had seen him do things at home that maybe he couldn't showcase for others until he got to high school in band and drama."
In 1968, the Yoakam family moved once more, to a home on Northtowne Boulevard, where Dwight lived until he left Columbus for good about a decade later. It was there that he discovered his performance outlet, in drama and music at Woodward Park Junior High and Northland High School. His mother encouraged Dwight and his siblings to participate in marching band, as she had in Kentucky, playing trombone. Dwight took up the drums. But even though he was active in school, he was still considered a bit of a loner, often quiet and introspective.
"I didn't think that anyone thought of me as a wallflower because I was just … I had a universe of things going through my mind," he says, “But I've never been a real overt personality.”
In drama, he earned his first leading role during his junior year, when he played Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon.”It was a role that seemed to bring Yoakam out of his shell. “I think, after that, he became more confident in what he could do in front of an audience," says his former drama teacher, Chuck Lewis.
But Yoakam, it seems, hadn't yet developed his way with the ladies. The play included a scene in which he was supposed to kiss classmate Sue Ball. “Now understand, Sue Ball was one of the primo knockouts of the school," says former classmate Byron Houchins, who also was in the play. “Any God-fearing, red-blooded American high school boy would have loved the chance to kiss her. But as shy and bashful as Dwight was, he just couldn't do it. In rehearsals, it would get to that point in the play, and he'd just freeze up. Chuck Lewis would be sitting in the auditorium just screaming, 'Just kiss her! See Dwight, it says right there in the script, Boy Kiss Girl! Just kiss her!' Finally, the seniors on the cast just took him in the back room and screamed at him until he did it."
So, Ms. Ball—women everywhere are wondering: What's it like to kiss Dwight Yoakam? Although her for-the-record answer is “No comment," she adds, “I have to say I had no complaints."
Yoakam's profile changed dramatically a few weeks later, however, after his performance in Northland's annual Variety Show, in which he and a handful of his stage-band mates put together a 1950s-style rock and roll band. "When we got on stage—Bang!—this whole new persona overcame Dwight Yoakam," says Houchins, who was also in the Variety Show band. "He was swinging around, and laying on the stage singing to the girls, and people were going crazy. In one night, he went from a negative-5 on the Nerd Scale to off the charts on the popularity end."
Yoakam says the night's performance "wasn't something I just discovered in myself. My mom and dad had seen me shakin' a leg and beatin' a guitar since I was 3 years old. It was just something I'd only then had the opportunity to realize and exhibit in a public way.”
What was eye-opening for Yoakam, however, was the audience's reaction. "That night, after I got offstage and got home, it was like, 'Wow!' It's like you let something loose," he says. “It's like you're not sure what you just unscrewed the lid of. But it was fun. And it was flattering. And it was a bit daunting. It still can be."
The act proved so popular that it gave rise to a series of dances in the school lobby, featuring what became known as The Greaser Band. In the summers, the band played at area swimming pools and private parties, including a gig before a matinee of “American Graffiti,”at the former Loews Theater on Morse Road. As frontman for the Greaser Band, Yoakam fine-tuned the seductive style that would eventually make him famous. He even designed a gold lamé suit, with “Dwight" written down the outside seams of the legs and a zip-front short jacket with a giant red heart on the back.
After high school, Yoakam attended Ohio State University from June, 1975, through August, 1976, playing occasional gigs with a trio at the Rag Doll in Gahanna, but dropped out when a con man dangled the musical carrot in front of his nose, offering—for an up-front fee—to hook Yoakam up with an Opry-like tour. After borrowing money from family and friends to pay the man, Yoakam never heard from him again. "I know the Tennessee law was looking for the guy later, because they called me," says Dwight's father, David.
Instead of tucking his tail, however, Yoakam only became more determined, packing his bags and heading to Nashville. But country music's starmakers were clinging stubbornly to what some now call the Nash Trash sound, then dominating the charts—the light, middle-of-the-road pop fare of Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell, Anne Murray and Eddie Rabbitt—and were having none of Dwight Yoakam's honky tonk/bluegrass mix.
But there was, Yoakam was told, a market for his sound on the West Coast. Coincidentally, one of his former Greaser Band mates, Billy Alves, was heading out to Long Beach to visit an uncle for a few weeks; Yoakam went along. At the end of the summer, when Alves returned to Columbus, Yoakam decided to stay. "He struggled quite awhile in L.A.," says his mother, Ruth Ann. “I helped him out when I could, but I did not push him. I did not want him to make this his life's profession. But I stood behind him.”
Yoakam's break came in 1982, when he met Pete Anderson in a bar in the San Fernando Valley called Ryan's Roundup. "A mutual friend, a steel-guitar player, introduced us,” Anderson says, “and one day, Dwight sat in at a club I was playing. I said, 'What do you want to play?' and he says, 'Do you know "The Fugitive” by Merle Haggard?' Well, hell yeah, I'd only been playing it for 10 years. So I start and he jumps right in—Down every road, there's always one more city. ...She was like, 'Boink. Do it.' A lot of times you see a young singer sit in and just shake. But he was very mature on stage, and he was really going for it, so I could go for it. He wasn't intimidated one bit.”
It was the beginning of a relationship that has since been called country music's Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Yoakam and Anderson tapped into a vibrant L.A. club scene, in which a brand of music known as "cowpunk" was gaining popularity with bands like Rank and File, Joe Ely and Lone Justice. “Cowpunk was just a cool word to throw around to get our foot in the door," says Anderson, who says their sound was a meld of Yoakam's bluegrass roots with Anderson's blues foundation. “Our common ground was Buck, Merle, Hank and Lefty—the real shit. And we fed off each other."
Anderson says Yoakam already had written most of the songs that eventually landed on his first two albums. "He was frustrated," says Anderson. “I don't think he knew what Dwight Yoakam sounded like yet, and I'm going out of my way to tell him, 'These are real. You're writing in a traditional country vein, and nobody has the balls to write like this anymore. Don't be deterred because this business is full of rejection.’ ”
Within the year, the two were honing their sound together, with Dwight living, for a time, in the utility room of Anderson's studio apartment. By 1984, they managed to scrape enough money together to record a six-song EP on the small, independent Oak Records label, reportedly on a $5,000 budget—part of which was borrowed from Dwight's sister and brother-in-law, and part of which was a claim check from his auto insurance company after getting into a fender bender in his El Camino.
Eight months later, The Blasters, one of the more critically acclaimed of the reputed cowpunk bands, invited Yoakam, Anderson and the rest of the band to tour as their warm-up act. It was during that tour that Warner/Reprise record executive Paige Levy caught Yoakam's act in Austin. "I loved the guy and thought he was great, but I marveled at the crowd, which was a mix of hard-core country and hard-core punks with colored hair," says Levy. “I thought his music was just what country radio needed at the time ... something hip and fresh, yet traditional."
In hindsight, perhaps Yoakam owes much of his success to John Travolta—or Travolta's role in “Urban Cowboy.” The movie, released in 1980, turned a bunch of suburban kids into cowboy wannabes, spending Dad's money on boots, hats and Western apparel, filling up on beer and climbing atop mechanical bulls. The movie also turned country radio into a vanilla mix of laid-back fare, more resembling Linda Ronstadt than Loretta Lynn. But, like all fads, an anti-fad community arose, wanting to wrest Nashville back from the Peaceful, Easy Feelings to the Heartaches By the Numbers. Dwight Yoakam stepped through the door. His major-label debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., was released in 1986, and included all six songs from the independent EP of the same name, along with four additional cuts, including the title track and “Honky Tonk Man," a Johnny Horton tune that was to become Yoakam's first Top-40 single.
The album was released in March, and by April, it was on the Billboard country charts. By June 28, it hit No. 1. In all, Yoakam's debut spent 142 weeks on the charts, eventually selling more than two million copies. Both the album and the single “Honky Tonk Man” were nominated for Grammy Awards, earning Yoakam the Academy of Country Music's award for Best New Male Artist.
"I was stationed at Torrejon Air Force Base in Madrid in 1986," says Houchins. "I was at the NCO Club with the section supervisor, doing what most GIs do at the end of the day—slowly getting plowed. It was just when video jukeboxes were coming into vogue, and I hear this video come up-’Guitars, Cadillacs'—and I think, 'Boy that voice sounds familiar.' So I turn around and Bang, that's him. I couldn't believe it. I looked at my supervisor and said, 'I used to be in a band with that guy!' And he says, 'So why aren't you playing with him now?' I said, ‘I don't know.' And he says, 'Kind of like burning a lottery ticket, isn't it?' ”
Yoakam's follow-up, Hillbilly Deluxe, was another critical and popular success, earning him another Grammy nomination and another couple of Top-10 Country singles, including a remake of Elvis Presley's “Little Sister," which Yoakam says he and Anderson worked up during a sound check before their first Columbus concert, at the Newport Music Hall in 1986.
Before his third album, Yoakam made a pilgrimage to see one of his musical idols, Buck Owens, at Owens' ranch in Bakersfield. The two hit it off, and Owens agreed to come out of retirement and record a song with Yoakam. “Streets of Bakersfield," off Yoakam's third album, became his first No. 1 single.
He won his first Grammy Award in 1993 for Best Country Performance, Male, for the song "Ain't That Lonely Yet," off his best-selling album This Time, which has sold 3.4 million copies to date. He won a second Grammy in 1998, as part of a star-packed collaboration called Tribute to Tradition, in which Yoakam joined Clint Black, Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt and more on a song called “Same Old Train."
"Every time country gets too far into its pop excesses, someone comes along with a firm grasp of the music's traditional roots and takes things the other way," says author Chet Flippo, former senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine and current Nashville bureau chief for Billboard magazine, “Dwight Yoakam did that, and has managed to keep traditional at the front of his name.” Flippo says Yoakam was at the forefront of what was later termed the "new traditionalist”movement in country music, paving the way for the vaunted Class of '89, which included the debuts of Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Trisha Yearwood.
But while Yoakam was kicking down doors in country music, his other foot searched for a Hollywood toehold. His first acting job after high school was at the Long Beach Playhouse, where he played the lead role in “Heaven Can Wait” in September 1978, for which he won the troupe's award for performance of the year. Yoakam, however, says he was frustrated when he couldn't get an agent to come and watch him perform. “It taught me a lot about acting, especially in Hollywood,” he says. “This was a good playhouse, and it illustrated for me at that point that I was going to control my own destiny as a performer to a greater extent with my music. I carried it literally with me in my hands."
He returned to the stage in 1993, starring in the Peter Fonda-directed play “Southern Rapture” at the MET Theater in Hollywood, and made his film debut a year later with a brief appearance as a truck driver who discovers stowaway Nicholas Cage in the film “Red Rock West,” which also starred Dennis Hopper. That same year, Yoakam, Hopper and Fonda partnered in opening the Thunder Roadhouse, a hip Sunset Strip bar popular with Hollywood types and upscale urban bikers. The Roadhouse, however, burned down in 1997.
Yoakam's best-known screen appearance came late in 1996, with the release of the Academy Award-winning “Sling Blade,” written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also played the lead role of Karl Childers, a mentally handicapped man who befriends a young boy. Yoakam played Doyle Hargraves, the abusive boyfriend of the boy's mother, who makes the boy's life miserable, leading up to the film's dramatic conclusion between Yoakam and Thornton. When Thornton won the 1996 Best Actor Oscar, Yoakam was sitting next to him at the Academy Awards ceremony.
Through the first half of 1999, Yoakam was on-site in southern Arizona making his directing debut, filming a script that he wrote called “South of Heaven, West of Hell,” a self-described Gothic Western starring Bridget and Peter Fonda, along with Billy Bob Thornton, Vince Vaughn and Paul Reubens. “It's been an arduous journey into independent films," says Yoakam. “It makes the music business pale by comparison. But, when we weren't struggling on our hands and knees, it was some of the greatest satisfaction that I've found ever in my life. Wow! The experience of directing; that truly is where the art lies in film."
Yoakam acknowledges that his newfound opportunities in film have grabbed his attention away from music at times, but says the creative diversion has been healthy. “I don't know if 'burnout’ is the right word,” he says. "Maybe disillusionment. There are things that I derive from executing a performance as an actor that I don't as a musician and vice versa. One allows me to be inspired to continue to do the other."
As soon as his “South of Heaven” filming was completed, Yoakam launched his first tour in three years, in support of his recent album, Last Chance for a Thousand Years and a follow-up of his 1989 release, Just Lookin' for a Hit, his first greatest-hits release.
Last Chance debuted on Billboard's country album charts at No. 10 on June 5, driven by the single “Crazy Little Thing Called Love." The song is a remake of the rock group Queen's 1980 hit, for which Yoakam owes Lisa Prisco, creative director at The Gap, much thanks. It was Prisco who invited Yoakam to provide the soundtrack for one of the Gap's megasuccessful khaki ads—the ad that features shiny, happy, boots-and-khakis clad people doing a country line dance to Yoakam's version of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Originally the ad-makers had asked if they could use his version of "Honky Tonk Man," but a few weeks later, called back and asked if Yoakam would consider recording the Queen song.
Within two months of the commercial's premiere, during the Academy Awards broadcast March 21, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was climbing the charts, and as of mid September, it still remained in the top 40. The song was quickly added to Yoakam's greatest-hits album, and has become the highlight of his current tour—all thanks to a TV commercial. “Sometimes that's all it takes," says obviously happy record exec Levy.
Of course, Dwight Yoakam knows there's a whole lot more to it. It's there, in his song “A Long Way Home":
"Don't look back
'Cause you might see
Just how far
All that used to be.
Just let your mind
Think on what's gone
And then you'll know
That it's a long way home.”
This story originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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