Dwight Yoakam’s been playing country so long he qualifies as a statesmen, but Second Hand Heart, his fourteenth album, doesn’t sound like he’s settling into a mid-career lull. With jangly guitars, bracing tempos, and rowdy vocals, Yoakam’s songs are as wild as they were in 1986, when he released his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The record follows 3 Pears, his 2012 album produced with Beck, and more than that record echoes the cowpunk of his past, when as a young songwriter he found a home for his Bakersfield-styled songs in the Los Angeles punk scene, alongside bands like X, the Blasters, Los Lobos, and Cruzados, who incorporated roots influences. Drawn out west from his youth in Kentucky and Ohio by the call of Emmylou Harris, his country music hero, Yoakam’s hardcore twang fit in among former punkers who “decided they wanted to explore country music as an expression,” Yoakam says, but it also drew on a long lineage of West Coast pop, Appalachian hillbilly music, and English skiffle. A potent blend he continues to explore with Second Hand Heart.
Aquarium Drunkard: There’s a lot of “California music” in the DNA of Second Hand Heart. Stuff like the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and of course, Buck Owens. Did you have that in mind as a template when you started working on this record?
Dwight Yoakam: Well, there was not a conscious concept of “California,” but by osmosis it’s going to be there. I’ve spent the greatest part of my life in California. I dropped out of Ohio State back in the ‘70s and headed west, as the admonition stated, you know: Go west. I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, but “grew up” in California. I was 20 years old when I got here, and it’s part and parcel of me. California music itself is part of the American musical canon. It certainly was an influence to all of us listening to car radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. From the Beach Boys, through the explosion of country rock, the commercial California pop rock of the ‘70s, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and ultimately Fleetwood Mac…exponents of California music, if you will. I was curating some music the other day for a TV idea and the California thing came up. It’s Route 66. From the Dust Bowl to now it’s shaped culturally the larger part of the American 20th century. So it wasn’t anything conscious, it wasn’t like a concept. I think it’s an outgrowth of who I am as a Californian.
AD: Did you first settle in Los Angeles when you got to California in the ‘70s?
Dwight Yoakam: It was actually Long Beach for a couple years. [I came out with a buddy who] was coming out for a summer — or he wasn’t sure how long. He had family in Orange County and he wanted to possibly make a move. So as fate would have it he said, “You’re coming with me,” so I sold my car to my brother and took what little cash I had and jumped in a ’74 Volkswagen with him and we headed west. After a few months, he left and went home. I got a job at a loading dock at a department store and started working there, got a car, started driving up into L.A. proper, going to the Palomino and meeting musicians. I put a band together by late ’79, and was playing a five- sets-a-night gig at a place in the valley called the Corral, which was a classic kind of country nightclub in a working class area of the valley.
I began to meet other like-minded musicians and putting a band together. Bob “Boo” Bernstein was playing steel for me, and he said, “You have to meet this guy, [producer] Pete Anderson. He’s playing another club in the west valley.” He had me come over and sit in with that band one night. That’s where Pete and I met. We began talking and responded very immediately to each other’s playing and singing. I started showing him my original material and we then formed the basis of the new unit…[which] evolved into that first band that was on Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. [Yoakam’s 1986 debut]. And, along the way I did a play or two [laughs].