Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam (Emily Joyce)

My Night With Dwight

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It didn’t end until 12:30 AM, when they threw us out of the SiriusXM studio.

I was disappointed Yoakam arrived late, but as soon as he got there he sat down in a chair and started riffing and I was stunned… THIS GUY IS SMART!

In a dumb business, where oftentimes the musicians are stoners who can barely get it out.

He started philosophizing about the history of California country/rock, told me Chris Hillman was pissed that they called it that, with the Burrito Brothers they were just pursuing COUNTRY! Dwight is threading the needle from the sixties to the seventies and then drops that he initially lived in Long Beach and I always thought he was from Bakersfield and that’s when I got his story, he was from Ohio via Kentucky and he came out with his buddy to make it but his buddy turned around after three months and Dwight was stuck but he never went back, he realized he was in California to stay.

Ever meet your doppelganger? Someone who sees the world just like you?

Dwight asked me when I arrived in L.A. Then he started waxing rhapsodic about the Basin, how he loved it, and we reminisced about landmarks and escapades and the whole evening turned into something I had not anticipated, a trip down the rabbit hole with someone who’s still excited about music, who still thinks the past counts, but is fully aware of the present, putting out only a double-sided single as his latest release.

I’d only met Dwight once before, in the bowels of Staples Center, after he opened for Eric Church. He knew who I was, he made reference to something I wrote, he was forthcoming as opposed to laid back, it made an impression upon me, to the point when his management team asked if I would appear on his Sirius XM show “Greater Bakersfield” I said yes.

Dwight could record it in his office, but then it doesn’t feel like radio to him. So he goes down to the studio and…

We are not recording, we are just talking, he’s giving me the lay of the land, we’re catching up, and then he says he’s gonna play records and we’re gonna talk over them and it sounds like the old Art Fein cable show and the country tracks he’s mentioning…many of them I do not know. Then again, I catch all the references, I know the producers, I know the players, this is my history, stuff only a subset of people know, it felt great to be connected, but I was fearful when the show began I’d have nothing to say.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dwight started with Buffalo Springfield and then went on to Poco and we got hung up there, as we sidetracked to Roger Miller and Buck Owens and it was like the whole hip-hop generation did not exist. It got me to wondering, is hip-hop as dominant as they say it is? After all, this is the same press that missed Trump. And it also made me believe the past was dead. I gave up writing about old records, maybe I should still do that, maybe those roots are valuable, maybe it’s not pure nostalgia. I mean Dwight was not talking like those tracks were deep history, but positively alive. He played this cut by Gene Clark from the Byrds LP “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and he looked into the distance and ruminated over the lyrics and it was hard not to believe songwriting craft had taken a left turn and we needed to get back to the garden.

And Dwight’s stopping the track and replaying it and ultimately focuses on the following lyrics from Clark’s “Set You Free This Time”:

“I have never been so far out in front
That I could ever ask for what I want
And have it any time”

And my mind is set adrift, thinking… How some people are born with it others achieve it and the rest of us are always fighting for it.

And then Dwight starts telling Byrds tales, about a fistfight on a video shoot, and it becomes clear that he’s read every rock bio extant, he’s a student of the game.

And the show’s only an hour but we talk for two and then…

While we were still sitting in the lounge, before the show began, Dwight asked me…

DO YOU PLAY?

Now he couldn’t really mean that, I didn’t even bother with a response. But Dwight waited and I told him I had a guitar, a Gibson SJ, but my mother had left it in the crawl space and the top had gotten moldy and Gibson told me they would repair it but those people don’t work there anymore and I really haven’t plucked any strings since the seventies, the EARLY seventies.

And Dwight told me I was gonna play TONIGHT!

No, no, no. I protested that I was never any good, I couldn’t remember all the chords and…

Then we walked into the studio.

But when the show was over, Dwight asked me which axe I wanted, his signature model Martin or the more beat-up one and…

I was afraid to touch his D-28, it had nary a scratch.

And then like in a movie the rest of his band entered the room and we set about recording.

THIS IS IT, THIS IS THE ESSENCE!

I got a bit of history from the players while Dwight got his guitar tuned and then…

We started playing Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita,” Dwight had spoken of Linda Ronstadt’s cover during the show.

And the train has left the station and I’m on board and contemplating jumping but they won’t let me! I ask about the chord changes and then we were OFF!

Whew!


I was used to lighter gauge strings. I picked up the chords, if not the flourishes, and then I realized…

Dwight was producing the track, he was looking if not for perfection, something very close.

And after “Carmelita” he said we had to do another. A few songs were pondered, and then we started in on “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the classic from “Rubber Soul.”

He had the lyrics printed. But this one I knew by heart.

He couldn’t get the third verse right, so I sang it to him.

And then…

We must have done nearly ten takes. It had to be right.

And the musicians are uttering terms I’m unaware of, a secret language, this was not a hobby but a PROFESSION! They’d studied, paid their dues and…

The other thing is I’m inches from Dwight and when he starts to sing…

WHEW! This guy really can!

I mean you’re talking to him and then he opens up his pipes and you’re in an intimate show with someone who’s sold millions of records and…

He keeps doing the intro over and over again, telling his Facebook audience that I’m there and I’m gonna sing and play and I’m getting more uptight and the more we rehearse, the greater my parts, until I’m gonna sing all three verses and I realize I don’t have enough breath and my fingertips are hurting and I’m not following all the chords but Dwight is so supportive, laughing, giving me compliments I don’t deserve and ultimately we get it, even though I believe I’ve flubbed one line, we’re through.

And I’m relieved, but also sad, this evening is gonna end, and I’m right here in the belly of the beast.

This is the way it used to be, when we all picked up guitars after the Beatles, when you went to people’s houses and sang songs. It’s a long tradition I thought had died. But in this Sirius XM studio it was totally alive. Which made me realize this was not the only place.

And you move to L.A. to get closer, but you never get that close. Most musicians don’t make it, most people who want to be in the business give up or get squeezed out.

And then time passes and you’re living on fumes, not even sure the dream you once had still exists.

And then you’re hanging with musicians and playing and you’re tingling, you just can’t believe it, this is where it’s at, and you’re at the center of it!

It wasn’t about business, even though Dwight Yoakam has had tons of success.

It was like the labels and the charts and the penumbra were irrelevant, it was all about the music.

And I don’t care if you believe in hip-hop, EDM or hate Dwight. If you’d been there last night your eyes would have been bugging out, you’d have had a smile on your face, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the real thing. And I’ve seen household name bands in rehearsal, I’ve hung with rock stars, but it’s really about the music.

And today’s hit acts are about anything but. They’re about the cash, the sponsorship, the fame, whereas those used to be external benefits, far from the core. You’d taken a left turn, you knew who you wanted to be. Dwight wrote his first song at eight. His band played in between songs at the movie theatre. He moved to L.A. and schlepped boxes for Airborne and other companies. He drove to the deep Valley to perform three off-nights a week. He met people, worked the angles, and finally connected. When he did his first label showcase at the Roxy Lenny Waronker told him he knew what he was doing, not to change a thing, not to let anybody at the label make him do anything he didn’t want to do.

And Dwight ended up here. With a musical career. And an acting one too, after all he was in theatre back in school.

And he took the alternative route and made it! Against the long odds, because he believed in himself.

And he knows the money is now on the road, he knows it’s hard to get your new stuff listened to, but he doesn’t care, because he loves the music.

So do I.

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