Born in Kentucky. Raised in Ohio. Perfected in California.
That’s the ol’ Dwight Yoakam adage.
It’s no secret the Kentucky native gave Nashville a try in 1977 before becoming disinterested with the city’s pop-country proclivity. Instead, he boot-scooted across the heartland to California, where he found himself better suited to the L.A. Cowpunk scene with The Blasters, X, Rank & File and others.
The Nashville-to-L.A. move was a pretty good decision, to say the least.
In his 30-plus-year career, the hillbilly-music maverick has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, earned 21 Grammy nominations and charted five Billboard No. 1 albums. For the most part, the California transplant has done it without the help of Nashville—never compromising his high-grade, hard-core, honky-tonk music for the of-the-moment stylings of Music City.
While Dwight’s instinctive approach to country music has been unconventional, his genius is undeniable. It’s in his DNA.
Growing up in Kentucky’s easternmost Pike County, bluegrass music was also in Dwight’s DNA. Dickenson County, Va., which is the birthplace of bluegrass luminaries Carter and Ralph Stanley, borders Pike County. Before the Carters, the Hatfields and McCoys were in the area, probably front-porch pickin’ when they weren’t a-killin’ each other in the backwoods.
Dwight wandered back to those Kentucky roots for his new album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, a 12-song bluegrass record that dropped on Sept. 23.
“My grandpa took me to a coon dog meet up in the [Pike County] hills every month and we’d get together on a Sunday afternoon,” says Dwight. “And all these old boys would bring their dogs—their best dogs—out. They would challenge—there’d be a pot of money up for grabs—of which dog could tree this raccoon. And I remember going down to this holler with him and getting up in there, and I saw these guys pulling guitars and mandolins out of their trucks. This is out by a lake way up in the hills, and during and after the whole exercise to run these dogs and doing this kind of event, they were all just walking around playing toward one another in little circles, little groups. They would break off into groups of two or three or four guys and just blaze. It was the first time I was ever as a kid just taking that in.”
No doubt young Dwight took it all in. Now, as he approaches his 60th birthday in October, Dwight decided it was the right time to let it all out.
Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars reflects the love for bluegrass Dwight developed in those Kentucky hills. To do his roots justice, Dwight assembled a world-class group of bluegrass virtuosos for the project, including Grammy winner and nine-time international Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year Bryan Sutton, Grammy winner Stuart Duncan on fiddle and banjo, 14-time Grammy winner Barry Bales on bass, Adam Steffey on mandolin and Scott Vestal on banjo. The album was co-produced by Dwight and nine-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa and Grammy winner Jon Randall. Dwight recorded the album at both Southern Ground Studio in Nashville—making it the first album he has recorded in Music City—and the legendary Capitol Records Studio B in Los Angeles.
“[The coon dog hunt] is what [recording the album] reminded me of when we would gather at the beginning of each track and sort out the arrangement with one another,” says Dwight. “JR [Jon Randal] and Gary and I already had a loose idea, but it could change and it did change based on the moment.”
The album is comprised of 12 songs, 11 of which are cuts from Dwight’s previous catalogue, reimagined and reinvented as bluegrass ditties. Many of the tunes are deep cuts from Dwight’s collection, including “What I Don’t Know” (1988’s Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room), “Sad, Sad Music” (1990’s If There Was a Way) and “Free to Go” (2000’s Tomorrow’s Sounds Today), among others. He coupled those deeps cuts with Top 10 hits like “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Please, Please Baby,” before rounding out the album with “Purple Rain,” which was recorded with scratch vocals after Dwight heard the news that Prince had died.
“‘Purple Rain’ was a completely spontaneous response,” says Dwight. “I was in the hotel in the West End [of Nashville] getting ready that morning to go to the studio. I’m an addict of 24-hour news channels and I glanced at the TV and it was on mute and there was something about Prince’s compound, so I unmuted it and it said there was a death at the compound. So I listened for the next 20 minutes or so, then it just unfolded and it was in fact Prince who had passed away.
“I never met him, only in passing like in a hallway, and a nod, and he’d do a Prince wink. He actually came to a play I was doing in L.A., and stood in the wings, he was friends with another actor in the paly. He snuck in and watched the play.
“There was a sadness about [his death]. The details, he was 57 or 58, he will always be that kid who broke out in the late ’70s, early ’80s, with that outrageous kind of style and sense of himself and music and a rediscovery again of a radical, rebelliousness of music. That was one of the shocking deaths this year. It literally came from nowhere. When we got to the studio, it was what everyone was immediately talking about, just wow.
“I said, ‘Let’s play “Purple Rain.”’ I’d just always loved the melody. There’s something really innocent and sweet and pure about that melody . . . I’ve listened to a lot of music, a lot of different kinds of music. ‘Purple Rain,’ from the beginning when I first heard that song, it stopped me melodically. The emotion of the melody, so pure and simple. On [the video] footage [recorded that day], everyone starts walking toward one another, just playing from their heart. I tried to re-sing later to do a better track, better vocal. Because it was the third day of the sessions and I was pretty beat up, more beat up than now, just from working my voice. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m awfully torn up there. Maybe I’ll sing it again when I get back to California.’ . . . And I left it alone because there is something in the moment of that with what five players did that day in that room. It was just an expression, I think, of respect to someone that came from a whole different genre of music. Recognized in that room. We all knew him [musically]. We’re all touched in some way, you know. The world was affected musically. The musical world was affected by the fact of him. . . hopefully, [Prince] would be flattered, with what [we] did in his memory.”
Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars Track List
1. “What I Don’t Know”
2. “Free to Go”
3. “Sad, Sad Music”
4. “These Arms”
5. “I Wouldn’t Put It Past Me”
7. “Two Doors Down”
8. “Guitars, Cadillacs”
9. “Home for Sale”
10. “Please, Please Baby”
11. “Gone (That’ll Be Me)”
12. “Purple Rain”
photos by Emily Joyce
Dwight’s quotes taken from his Hall of Fame and Mercy Lounge shows on 9/21