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Dwight Yoakam

As one of country music's most acclaimed singer-songwriters, Dwight Yoakam helped launch the neo-traditionalist revival, which stressed such rough-and-tumble artists as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens over the slick Nashville establishment. As a singer, Yoakam has released several great albums and collections, but he's also built an impressive acting career, with roles in films such as Sling Blade and The Newton Boys and a prominent role in David Fincher's upcoming The Panic Room. Last year, in addition to releasing two albums (Tomorrow's Sounds Today and dwightyoakamacoustic.net), Yoakam also finished his writing and directing debut, South Of Heaven, West Of Hell, in which he appears alongside an expansive cast of friends and notables. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Yoakam about the state of country music, his upbringing, and his lifestyle as a Renaissance man.

The Onion: How do you find time for both music and film work?

Dwight Yoakam: You know what? It's tougher to balance all the press activity, actually. Seriously, it's tougher to find the time, between meetings and everything. The actual work of recording a record or making a film just requires that you consciously block the time out to do that and nothing else. That's what I do. You know, I had just finished doing press on the record, and then they pushed back work on the film I was working on, so they scheduled more press. Sometimes it's just a juggling act. Normally, I wouldn't do both. But in terms of one impeding the other, it doesn't.

O: You were successfully making music before you started making films. What sparked your interest in acting?

DY: I had acted in theater since I was 14 or 15. When I was in junior high, a foreign-history teacher started a theater class. So I got my feet wet there and through high school, so I was very fascinated with acting as a means of expression. I had always played guitar and performed music. Actually, ironically, in high school, the theater program allowed me to take what I did as a singer on stage in front of people. In my junior year, we had a variety show, so I formed a rockabilly band and performed music in front of an audience for the first time.

O: This is back in Ohio?

DY: Uh-huh. Columbus. So it was always symbiotic for me. I played music and sang from my earliest memories. The first pictures of me show me wandering around with a guitar that was larger than I was, and it became almost second nature to me. But formally, it was only in a theater environment that I was given the opportunity to perform in front of an audience in a secular way. I was involved in singing in church, and leading singing, but I was raised in the Church Of Christ, and they didn't use music in worship, so there was no use of the guitar. So it does sort of tie in, in an ironic way, that my involvement in theater in high school allowed me the opportunity to start performing music with a band. I had a band in junior high. One time, we had a little carnival and I was able to do three songs with a trio, but I count that more as an exercise in terror. [Laughs.] Then I began to focus solely on music in my late teens and early 20s. I did a play once I moved to California, but I really felt that I should set that aside and focus on what I thought were my strengths, my singing and writing. If the opportunity presented itself, I [thought I] might go into acting as an alternative form of expression. Later, I was able to do that. Some years later, the first film I did was Red Rock West, which John Dahl directed.

O: You played a truck driver, right?

DY: Yeah, and I had a minor incident with Nicolas Cage on the roof.

O: If you're a country musician and an actor, does it take a while before people stop offering you roles like "cowboy" or "truck driver"?

DY: I think it does take time. The image of me as a country singer with a hat, those were the first offers I got. There are still things that come in that are music-related or music-oriented. It doesn't really interest me, probably because it's so close to my "day job." I think it's just a matter of seeking out opportunities and work. It's incumbent on an individual artist to appreciate the audience's opinion. I've had the opportunity with some roles, not the least of which was Doyle in Sling Blade, to hopefully convince people that I'm possibly capable of acting as a means of expression. Also, I've been fortunate in being able to select what I'm going to do in a very deliberate way.

O: You've just released a new album and you've already moved on to another movie.

DY: That's right. It's called The Panic Room. We're actually in pre-production now. I'm not actually on stage, acting, yet. It got pushed back a couple of weeks, so now things are kind of jumbled. Then there's also the film I directed, South Of Heaven, West Of Hell.

O: You've got tons of good actors in that movie.

DY: Well, we're hoping that Bud Cort gets noticed, and Paul Reubens. I'm really proud of the work they've done. Also Vince Vaughn, Bridget Fonda. Peter [Fonda] has a role in it. Billy Bob Thornton, Paul, Bud, Michael Jeter, Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, some really talented guys. A lot of the old Peckinpah guys.

O: How did you convince them all to act in your first film?

DY: I gave them the script and had them read it. [Laughs.] In the scope of everything, that was the easy part, because the story I had written and developed was something those actors were interested in being a part of. We were very fortunate to have them along, and every one of them stayed through the production. We were truly an independent film, in more ways than we ever even imagined being. We ended up with a production company that had never funded a film, so it became a real tough journey. But, because of the efforts of the crew and every one of those actors in the cast, the film was completed.

O: How much did it end up costing?

DY: I think the budget was around $4.3 million. It was shot in 26 days. It's a period Western, so we shot it in Arizona.

O: You obviously listened to a lot of music when you were growing up in Ohio. How did you pick country?

DY: I don't think I picked it; it picked me. Again, because it was the thing most natural to me, most instinctive to me. Could I have attempted to sing other things? Yes, I guess. It wouldn't have had the meaning for me that country music did. It would have been a tougher sell, actually, than other things I could have attempted to do on the West Coast, being located here. It was a tougher sell for a young person in the late '70s, because outside the West Coast, the ebb and flow of it was in a period of waning, in terms of the youth interest in country music at that point, by '78 or '79. You had Emmylou Harris. Olivia Newton-John really was a pop act, and radio had changed very dramatically at that point. There was a time in the early '70s when, yeah, country-rock and country were played on FM rock radio. Linda Ronstadt was played alongside tracks by Cream or Hendrix, and they played right next to The Eagles, and The Eagles also were played in rotation with mainstream rock. But by the time I had arrived, it was purely and simply because it was something I did almost by birthright. I was born in rural southeast Kentucky, in Pikeville. That whole area, the valley, was full of country music, and I grew up listening to it. It was the station that was programmed in my dad's car, which was always playing country music, and in my mother's it was back and forth. We might listen to a Top 40 station for a few minutes, but even in my own car, I was bouncing around but listening to the country station more often than not. And I grew up with country records in my own collection. On Top 40 stations, from the late '50s when I was born to the late '60s, you could hear Buck Owens—singing "Tiger By The Tail"—on the same station where The Supremes were singing "You Can't Hurry Love." The same station that was playing [Henson] Cargill's "Skip A Rope" was playing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." I think that's a healthy environment for musicians to grow up in and evolve. Even in places like Chicago, there was a huge musical environment, a really healthy blast of music. All types, all styles. I think that's why you've got John Prine coming out of Chicago in the early '70s, making the music he made. We were all part of... John Prine, myself, Ricky Skaggs. He also lived in Columbus over the years, off and on. His father would move up there for work. We lived in a very migratory time, post-war. The whole Ohio Valley... You saw all these Kentucky license plates heading south on Friday evenings. That's why I wrote "Readin', Rightin', RT 23." Or at least that's what I wrote about. That lifestyle. Parents putting the kids in the car after work on Friday night, and you'd head south. We were only 90 miles from Kentucky, but still it could be a world apart, as it says in the song. Culturally, I felt very blessed to be born into the colloquial environment. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, and I grew up in California. I was 20 years old when I landed here, so I grew to adulthood on the West Coast.

O: That gives you the best of all worlds.

DY: Well, it can be a mixed bag, a blessing and a curse. You can find yourself, at least by proxy, disenfranchised. I think it becomes incumbent upon you, the individual, to find your own voice, because you're not going to just happen into it with that kind of cultural, geographic movement.

O: Even with all the new country music coming out of California or the Midwest in the late '70s, Nashville still seemed to have a grip on the industry.

DY: Well, Nashville is still the center of the business aspects of country music. I'm signed with Warner/Reprise, in the Nashville division, and they've been great. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and the whole outlaw movement in the mid-'70s were a beacon for me. There was the Red Headed Stranger album that broke Willie, and then the Outlaws album—two things that again served as guideposts for me in terms of country music still being pertinent to a young, hip audience. And I took that with me, as well as what Emmylou Harris was doing, which is what took me to the West Coast. You see, I had loved doing country music. The thing most natural to me, first and foremost, was the way I sing. It's the music I heard first as a child. It's the music I heard my grandmother sing, and it's the music I heard my mother and my aunt sing. They still... When they get together and sit on a porch swing and start rocking back and forth, it comes out country. It's kind of like what Loretta Lynn sang: "Take her away, way far away!" [Laughs.]

O: Though by the '70s, people had stopped playing Buck Owens, who was still great.

DY: Yeah, but that just allowed career opportunities to reintroduce him. It was almost as if, when I started collaborating with Pete Anderson, we had a secret weapon in terms of delivering music to people. And that was that we were going to give them hillbilly music. He grew up in Detroit, listening to all those factory workers, transplants from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with their radios playing hardcore hillbilly stuff. We just felt very strongly that it was still, and would always be, absolutely valid as a means of expression in popular music. I looked at it as a plus, but again, it was a mixed blessing in terms of trying to get someone to respond to what I was doing when forming a band, once I arrived on the West Coast. But ultimately, it was the foundation that allowed me to build my musical career, and it's the thing that is, inherently, my cornerstone musically. It's so instinctive to me. It always seemed a sure thing to sing hillbilly music. Even in high school, in that variety show, I went out and did a hillbilly rendition of a song, in addition to that rockabilly band I had. I could never move far away from that hillbilly stuff as a singer.