Better Than Sushi

Dwight Yoakam, from superdork to superstar

Among the best snapshots in my box o' memories is the one of a Beat Farmers record-release party at LA's Club Lingerie in 1984. Various members of the Farmers, Blasters, Cruzados, Long Ryders, Plimsouls and Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions merrily loom about, retarded cocaine smiles adorning our mugs. Dave Alvin is groping some aging groupie with '80s clothes and big hair. Bigshot writer Chris Morris is chewing on my arm in the midst of alcohol-induced pleasantry. And there in the back of this motley assemblage is a scrawny balding guy, looking very sober and perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the whole situation. That guy right there? That's Dwight Yoakam.

In 1984, all anyone knew from Dwight was that he was some goofy hillbilly cat whom Alvin always dragged out to shows. Dwight was a nice guy, quiet and unassuming, and he had a real purty voice, but was a bit of a pest, I thought. He never engaged in proper drug-induced bonding with the rest of us, and every damned time the San Diego-based Farmers played LA, this bedraggled Alvin-sidekick would approach me and ask, "Hey, kin ah sang 'Swangin' Doors' witchoo fellers tonight?" We always let him sit in, and he always sounded fine, but he became too much of a fixture for my taste: The Beat Farmers Revue featuring Some Skinny Bald Guy Named Dwight.

By 1986, Dwight had his own band together—a kick-ass band—and his first record, an indie-released EP called Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. was in the stores. He made his San Diego debut at a club called the Bacchanal and put on a great show. The funny-lookin' little fucker had covered his pathetic dome with a studly cowboy hat, donned some painted-on-his-ass Levis and busted out some pelvis-grinding moves that had the ladies in the audience leaving liquid souvenirs in their seats. I was proud of him. After the show, I went backstage and announced, "I have seen the future of country music and its name is Dwight Yoakam!"

I didn't mean it, though; I was just being a nice guy. Although he'd evolved leagues in the last couple of years, I still couldn't help thinking of Dwight as an amiable, ambitious dork. If you'd have told me then that what I said would actually come to pass, I'd certainly have laid an egg in my shorts.


Sugars

Dwight didn't have an easy time of it at first. Once he did in fact become a big hoo-ha in country music, there was a backlash among many of his old rock & roll cronies who believed he'd sold his soul and become an egotistical Nashville butthole in the process. The country music establishment, meanwhile, never forgave his earlier dalliances with us greaser cretins, nor his association with the (gasp!) Cally-fornyer music scene. For years, there was a line of graffiti on a wall of the Palomino Club—SoCal's premier country venue until it closed a spell ago—that read "Dwight Yoakam Eats Sushi," a damning indictment, indeed, if you're a stupid fucking redneck.

"It was a double irony," Dwight says now, reflecting on those days. "You get whacked from both sides. I couldn't have come from a more country, colloquial environment than Pike County, Kentucky, where I was born. That's where the Hatfields and McCoys feuded, literally. It's as far down into Appalachia as you can get. They pull coal out of there. That's the way you make a living down there, is by killing yourself. So I didn't have to explain anything to anybody.

"But how can anybody accuse someone from California of not being country in the first place?" Yoakam continues, reflecting on such Golden State hillbilly royalty as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Rose Maddox. "There's such a historical tradition of country music out of California that I'm always taken aback. . . . It was ignorance, cultural ignorance. Idiocy. Anyway, I figured it was only a matter of time before the music spoke for itself."

It did, loud and clear. Yoakam's honey-whipped vocals, sexually charged stage presence and tradition-steeped/contemporary-friendly songwriting combined with longtime collaborator Pete Anderson's hot 'n' twangy guitar work and 3-D production methods to produce a long and proud string of chart-topping country hits: covers of Johnny Horton's "Honky-Tonk Man," Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" and "Suspicious Minds," Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses," the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City"; duets with Buck Owens on "The Streets of Bakersfield" and Patty Loveless on "Send a Message to My Heart"; original honky-tonkers like "It Only Hurts When I Cry," "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere" and "You're the One." There have been two volumes of greatest hits released and even a mega-impressive boxed set. Best of all, for all his commercial achievements, Dwight never made a stinky album, never deigned to go mainstream. The man succeeded on his own terms.

Meanwhile, our hero—who'd always dabbled in film—cadged a truly auspicious Holly-wood crossover in 1996 with a role as creepy psychotic bully Doyle Hargraves in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade. "Billy told me, 'He's a terrible guy that I think you'd love to play,'" Yoakam recalls. "'I think the part could be memorable. I know the guy, you know the guy; we both know him. Anyone who went to high school knows him.' And I tried to convey what I felt . . . when you become an adult, you realize that that kind of bully is the one who is most frightened of the world—it's a front they're putting up. That was Doyle. I think Doyle knew that. The character even says, 'I don't know why I do this, I don't know why I act like this, but I don't know how to act any other way.'"

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