Dwight Yoakam has country music cred. The pioneering artist spent his first year of life in a coal company house way up in the small southeastern Kentucky holler of Betsey Layne, just across the border from the Virginia homes of the original Carter family and the Stanley Brothers. After his family moved to Ohio, Yoakam made frequent trips back to the holler to visit his grandparents.
A holler is basically a creek that runs out of the veins of a mountainside. And on that front porch, when we’d travel back, I would sit out there and entertain my grandfather. My grandpa, he kept asking me if I knew “Cripple Creek.” Well, I came back and I was really thrilled – I was like nine or ten years old – to tell him I had learned “Cripple Creek.” I thought, “Wow, he’s really astute!” ‘Cause The Band had put out a song called “Cripple Creek” that I mistook for the song by Flatt and Scruggs that he was asking about.
Like most of the “new traditionalist” artists of the 1980s, Dwight had grown up listening to the The Band and other Top 40 radio hitmakers, in addition to the country and bluegrass his family loved. The stripped-down honky-tonk and Bakersfield sound for which Yoakam became known proved, historian Bill Malone writes, that country “could flourish with a strong admixture of rock and roll.” Dwight Yoakam spent his formative years acting in theater productions and singing and playing guitar in local garage bands. In 1978, after a brief stint in Nashville, Yoakam relocated to Los Angeles. There, he formulated his own brand of honky-tonk – or, as he called it, “hillbilly” music – playing the same nightclubs as punk rock and “cowpunk” bands like X, Los Lobos, the Blasters, and the Butthole Surfers. In 1984, he released an independent EP, A Town South of Bakersfield, which received substantial airplay on L.A. college and alternative radio stations, and landed a contract with Reprise Records. Two years later, Dwight released his full-length debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. It was an instant sensation, garnering praise from country and rock critics and airplay on college stations nationwide, and made a splash on the country charts: its first single, a cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” reached No. 3, followed by No. 4 “Guitars, Cadillacs.” His next LP, Hillbilly Deluxe (1987), spawned four Top 10 hits. Yoakam had his first country No. 1 in 1988 with “Streets of Bakersfield,” a cover of a song by Yoakam’s longtime idol Buck Owens that featured the singing and playing of Owens himself. Yoakam has recorded more than twenty albums and compilations, charted more than thirty singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, and sold more than 25 million records. Five of his albums were Billboard No. 1s, twelve went gold, and nine platinum, including the triple-platinum This Time. He pushed the boundaries of what was considered “country,” attracting roots rock fans and college audiences. In the ‘90s, he turned his attention to the big screen, notably in critically-acclaimed performances as “bad guys” in Sling Blade and Panic Room – both stretches for mellow Yoakam, who has been described as one of the industry’s true “good guys.” He continues to produce and write well-received albums and songs, and to act for television and film.