Guitars, Cadillacs ... And Hillbilly Music
June 26, 2015
I had one of those, "I love my job / #blessed" moments earlier this week when I presented Dwight Yoakam with the CRS Artist Career Achievement Award during the Country Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony here in Nashville.
First and foremost, I have been a huge fan of his music from the onset of his career. I'm also proud to say that, first as an MD at KZLA/Los Angeles and eventually PD there in three different tours of duty at the station, we always supported Dwight's music early, while treating him as our local artist who was also a national success story.
Therefore, handing a "Career Achievement" award to an artist whose first-ever single I played was an absolute honor and a real thrill.
Yoakam's stats alone scream "Career Achievement" recipient: More than 21 albums and compilations; 30 charted singles; 25 million records sold; 12 Gold albums, three Platinum; and two-time Grammy winner.
But there's an important subtext here: Dwight Yoakam's unflinching, uncompromising commitment to a musical belief system. Sometimes, artists find success by moving toward the mass appeal and mainstream -- but it's quite another thing to make music that's so daring and bold, the mainstream moves toward you.
One could make a case that Country music was in the doldrums in a post-Urban Cowboy 1985. The New York Times described a more dire scenario, claiming in a piece that year that the format was near death, asserting: "Audiences are dwindling, sales of Country records are plummeting, and the fabled 'Nashville Sound,' which defined Country music for decades and made this comfortable, tree-shaded Tennessee city one of the world's leading recording centers, may soon sound as dated as the ukulele."
It's safe to say, at that time - 1984-'85 - there wasn't what you'd call a musical lane at Country radio for a unique brand of what Yoakam called "Hillbilly music," formed amid what was known as the CowPunk movement taking place in the mid-80s, primarily in the Rock clubs along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. That was an environment where opening with an entirely different take on a Bill Monroe song was enthusiastically received by 20-somethings as new and avant garde.
Dwight - along with contemporaries like Steve Earle, Randy Travis and The Desert Rose Band - formed their own lane ... and then owned it. By doing so, I would make the case that he helped shake Country out of its doldrums - in large part, paving the way for much of what came later in 1989. Unlike sales figures, chart success, and industry recognition, that kind of career achievement is harder to quantify, but arguably more significant and - I'm guessing for a Country music historian such as Dwight Yoakam - is even more satisfying.
A day before he came to Nashville to receive his award, Dwight and I spoke on the phone, and he took me for a trip on part of the journey to his Career Achievement honor.
What the Honor means:
"I was flattered that they wanted me to be a recipient. It's a long way from being in a 1970s El Camino driving around L.A. listening to KLAC-A thinking, 'Maybe, someday I'll get my song on the radio.' And I had a great run. I think, at last count from BMI and stuff like that, there were 18 or 19 Top 20 singles or something, so I did pretty well in terms of being able to do it on my own terms. I'm really grateful to Country radio for having played it on terms that were sometimes outside the mainstream.
"I believed in the music. I always believed in that kind of the classic, foundational form of Country music. Currently, the commercial success in Country music has brought about one of the great paradigm shifts in terms of demographic that have happened in Country music probably since - I'd almost venture to say - probably 1954, 1955 when a guy named Elvis Presley was considered Country. Before he became world-renowned, he was a Country artist - a Hillbilly artist - and it brought youth. So, there's an interesting kind of full-circle moment for current Country music. That's what my belief was in 1981 when I first cut demos in L.A., when I was driving air freight during the day to make a living and going to United Western Studios on Sunset just down from the old KLAC location - sneaking in on spec time at night recording demos of songs that would later be on albums that Warner Brothers released. I really believed the music would take me to where I was intended to go, if I was going to go someplace. And it really did. By 1984, I put out that six-song EP and first started garnering awareness by audiences not only in L.A. in the Rock club scene, but in the Country club scene like the Palomino. But it took us outside of Los Angeles. It got me first to New York, then down to Texas in Houston with bands like The Blasters allowing me to open for them. And that led to Warner Brothers re-signing the album and re-releasing it. They signed me in 1985 and released the first Warner Brothers single - which was an homage, if you will, to that kind of sound that was there in the 1950s on the Louisiana Hayride with Johnny Horton's song, 'Honky Tonk Man.' So, I always believed that it's about the integrity of the music. If you're being honest about that, the journey will kind of lead you."
Made In L.A., Recognized Nationally:
"We were opening with Bill Monroe every night for the CowPunk scene that was going on here [in Los Angeles] at the time. Bands like Los Lobos were less punkish than Tex and the Horseheads or Lone Justice. And there were all these bands that had been formerly Punk Rock kids who decided they wanted to explore the California West Coast areas of Country music. I'd been fired at a lot of the nightclubs in the [San Fernando] Valley during the Urban Cowboy period, because I wasn't playing the Top 40 Country. I was playing Merle Haggard and Buck songs, and Bill Monroe songs, and very traditional kinds of Country music. I was 26, 27, 28 years old when I was doing that, so were my peers and people in the audience. But being born in to Appalachia and raised to that music, it was the natural choice for me. And we did it with, I think, an immediacy that was pertinent to the Rock audience.
You could see the genuine affection with which the crowd was receiving it. And that's what we lived on. The band and I had could sense it; something you feel on stage. To sense other people in the growing audience we were beginning to have sort of carried us on their enthusiasm - and we were carried on the shoulders of their enthusiasm to the next place of opportunity, which was being signed when Paige Levy came down and watched us open for The Blasters at the Austin Opry House. The year-and-a-half that preceded that was still a struggle and still was with a kind of uncertainty - a period of hopeful apprehension for me. I didn't know that it was going to work, but I knew that we were at least able to have put that first 6-song EP version out and have it heard in places outside of L.A. It remained to be seen if I was going to be able to realize success beyond that. But, as fate would have it, I did.
We launched the re-release of 'Guitars, Cadillacs,' the album, with the title track on it. You know, RJ, I couldn't afford to put the title track on the EP, because I wrote it after I spent the money for the six songs. I wrote the title, but didn't have the money to record it. So, we had to put the EP out titled, "Guitars, Cadillacs, etc., etc." without the title track, so it was only after Warner Brothers signed me that we were able to go back in, and one of the additional four cuts was that. "Honky Tonk Man" was just out and just climbing the charts. And Lenny Waronker - who ran Warner Brothers Records out of Burbank - came to that show. He called me the next day, and here's the advice he gave me: 'I've been listening to this record for the past couple of months since we signed you, and I saw you for the first time last night. This goes against the conventional wisdom of my contemporaries, and I'd be run out of town as a record executive if they heard me tell you this. But my only advice to you is, if anybody here or anywhere else in your career tells you to do something that goes against your intuition or your instinct - do not do it.' That was the best piece of advice I was ever given."
Two important footnotes here:
- It was great to hear Yoakam talk passionately and gratefully about Country radio in his remarks at the Hall of Fame dinner. He said it would never have been possible to achieve 25 million record sales without radio's help. And while admitting to loving what non-terrestrial radio offers to him as a music fan, he also said that to this day he finds himself instinctively reaching for the radio dial in his car - almost as if it were muscle memory - because he is drawn to local radio's personalities and strong sense of community. It was a genuine endorsement of the medium, which I believe comes from something he mentioned in the above interview - that radio bought into and enthusiastically supported his sound, in spite of it being very much against the grain.
- While Yoakam mentions "I had a great run" above, let's be clear: He continues to record the same style of daring and bold music that brought him to this dance. I'd put his 2012 album "3 Pears" against anything he ever did on a critical level - with standout cuts (for me) including a cover of Vern Gosdin's "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud Music)," and "Trying." Additionally, his recently-released "Second Hand Heart" is terrific and definitely worth a listen.