King of California country music Dwight Yoakam tours the state for his new bluegrass album Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…
VISALIA – The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, or bluer in this case, which may be why Dwight Yoakam hadn’t thought of doing a bluegrass album over the years. It was always already implicit in his music throughout his Grammy Award winning career which has included 25 million albums sold worldwide with 12 gold albums and 9 platinum or multi-platinum albums, and five of those albums topping Billboard’s Country Albums chart and another 14 landing in the Top 10. Nearly 40 of Yoakam’s singles have charted on Billboard, with 14 peaking in the Top 10.
From “Miner’s Prayer” on his first album 30 years ago to his one-off collaborations with Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs. If you listened hard, you could even hear that strain of mountain music in the melodies and harmonic sense of his most rocked-out country hits. He wasn’t consciously thinking through the years that he could bust out the mandolins to confirm his Kentucky bona fides – “Melodically, it’s just part of my nature,” Yoakam says, “part of the birthright, I guess, in my DNA.”
Yet here he is, releasing Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… in the same year that he is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. His new album harks back to that landmark debut in its obviously cheeky title, while otherwise looking even farther back by recasting some of Yoakam’s most classic songs in a style that not only predates cowpunk but antecedes his beloved Bakersfield sound. Yoakam even remakes “Guitars, Cadillacs” in the style of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
The bluegrass influence “has always kind of been, as Glenn Frey would say, whispering in my other ear,” Yoakam says. Some of the signposts: In 1997, Yoakam recorded a cover of the Clash’s “Train in Vain” with Dr. Ralph Stanley on banjo and harmonies. On the Earl Scruggs and Friendsalbum in 2001, Yoakam co-wrote and sang “Borrowed Love” with another one of the genre’s great banjo players. In the mid-2000s, Yoakam started introducing a bluegrass-style acoustic rave-up mini-set in the middle of his otherwise electrified shows. And it’s been a mutual love affair. The influence he had on bluegrass himself was palpable, most obviously with the release of a Pickin’ on Dwight Yoakam bluegrass tribute album. Just this July, the group Flatt Lonesome was nominated for an International Bluegrass Music Award for Best Song for their cover of Yoakam’s “You’re the One.”
The album’s title is tongue in cheek play on the theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies, Yoakam says “because the album started in Nashville, and ended up in… well, you know, California is the place you oughta be!” But underneath the jibing, there’s a real sense of history in how Yoakam sees California’s role even in bluegrass. “I thought, well, I’m gonna give a wink back to everybody, to Flatt and Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and everybody who came out here. And this album really is that hybrid expression of a journey — and it’s the American journey. It’s the Dust Bowl ‘30s era blowing colloquial music out to California with all the Okie/Arkie/Texan migrants. Folks from Kansas and Nebraska and the plains all ended up out here and brought with ‘em their cultural elements. Without that, you don’t have Buck Owens out here, and you don’t have Merle Haggard, perhaps, in the way that we knew him.” And without them, you certainly don’t have the man many of us consider the reigning king of California country, Dwight Yoakam.
Yoakam will be in the heart of California country when he plays the Visalia Fox Theater on Friday, June 14. Tickets range from $69-$99 and are available at www.foxvisalia.org at the box office, 300 Main Street in Visalia. Doors open at 7 p.m. with showtime at 8 p.m.
Featuring a band of bluegrass luminaries, this album boasts a collection of reinterpreted favorites from his catalogue, as well as a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Produced by nine-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton), Jon Randall (songwriter of “Whiskey Lullaby”), and Yoakam himself, and mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, this album reflects the love for bluegrass music that Yoakam developed at an early age in Kentucky and that has inspired him for many years thereafter.
Whether it’s in purple or blue mode, the new album is “something that I’m really glad I took the time I didn’t have to do,” Yoakam laughs. Simultaneously to working on the album and keeping his usual demanding touring schedule, Yoakam was being attentive to his other career as a formidable film and television actor. His film credits include “Sling Blade” and “The Newton Boys.” In 2016, he recurred in David E. Kelley’s Amazon series, “Goliath.” Last year, he appeared in director Steven Soderbergh’s film, “Logan Lucky” with Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig. Yoakam is capable of seamlessly melting into his roles and impressively standing toe-to-toe with some of the world’s top thespians over the course of his storied and successful acting career, including Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and Matthew McConaughey.
He says Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… has been gratifying partly “because the songs feel new for me,” and partly because of the proper salute he was finally able to give bluegrass. “I hope we did justice to the legacy of that genre and kept the spirit of reckless abandon,” Yoakam says. “When you look back on the ’30s and ’40s, the bluegrassers were considered the wild men in music —Bluegrass was rock and roll, before there was such an animal. Hopefully we have that spirit in this.”