Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


YOAKAM, Dwight

(b 23 October 1956, Pikesville KY) Country singer asnd songwriter with an allegiance to pure honky tonk: the result is a little like early Elvis Presley but with less gospel influence and with a nasal vocal quality typical of honky tonk. He was immobile onstage, totally unlike Presley. From a religious background, he sang hillbilly hymns three times a week in church. The name Yoakam, which has hillbilly overtones in the USA thanks to the Al Capp comic strip Li'l Abner (Yokum), is a corruption of German Joachim: he can trace ancestors back 200 years. His unrecorded song 'Readin', Ritin' And Route 23' is about his parents' efforts at self-improvement and the road out of town.

Ignored by Nashville, he went to Los Angeles, fell in with burgeoning Los Lobos/Blasters talent pool and made a sizzling EP on the Oak label, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. '85 with Jeff Donovan (drums), J. D. Foster (bass), Pete Anderson (guitar), Brantley Kearns (fiddle; has recorded with David Bromberg, etc), also help from Glenn D. Hardin, the Blasters' Gene Taylor on keyboards, J. D. Maness on pedal steel, David Mansfield (Alpha Band, etc) on mandolin and dobro. His own song 'I'll Be Gone' was also included on 'new country' LP A Town South Of Bakersfield on the Enigma label (others anthologized included Billy Swan, Albert Lee). Yoakam was snapped up by WB, Guitars Etc reissued with the same sleeve and four more tracks. Covers of Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire', Ray Price's 'Heartaches By The Number', Johnny Horton's 'Honky Tonk Man' (released as single) were adequate homage; promising originals included 'Bury Me' (duet with Maria McKee), 'Minor's Prayer' (for his grandfather), 'South Of Cincinnati': album no. 1 USA C&W chart '86.

So much for Nashville, where RCA dropped Hank Snow after 45 years and Columbia dropped Cash after 28, and where (Yoakam points out) 'their music always starts in offices and then trickles down to the streets'. His eleven top ten country singles '86-92 included no. ones in '88 ('Streets of Bakersfield' with Buck Owens and 'I Sang Dixie'); albums Hillbilly Deluxe '87, Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room '88, Just Lookin' For A Hit '89 and If There Was A Way '90 (with Patty Loveless) all made the pop chart as well as the country chart. This Time '93 was still in the country chart a year later, followed by Dwight Live and studio album Gone '95. Under The Covers '97 was an album of (mostly unnecessary) covers, including a duet with Sheryl Crow on Sonny and Cher's 'Baby Don't Go'.

He was highly praised for his movie acting: Sling Blade '98, then Hollywood Homocide 2003 and Wedding Crashers 2005. In 2007 he made an album tribute to his idol Buck Owens; 3 Pearls 2012 was his first album in five years and the first in seven years to contain mostly his own songs. He refused to accept labels, calling it "American car music" for a country that's always been on the move. He received the Cliffie Stone Pioneer in Award in 2012 from the Academy of Country Music, which started on the West Coast. He quotes Merle Haggard from an interview: "Dwight, country music in Nashville came out of the churches. In California it came out of the honky tonks and bars."