Singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam

The two-time Grammy winner talks about his latest project, “3 Pears”—his first new studio album in seven years.

Dwight Yoakam combines country emotion and rock & roll electricity to rack up the hits. In high school, he excelled in music, performing with local garage bands and also regularly played leads in school productions. He dropped out of college to pursue a music career, and his 1986 debut album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.," instantly launched his career. The Kentucky native is one of the most respected singer-songwriters in music, with two Grammys and unit sales of more than 25 million. He's also continued acting, earning rave reviews. His 26th CD, "3 Pears," is his first all new studio album in seven years.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Dwight Yoakam back to this program. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is out now with his first studio album in seven years, a 12-song collection called “3 Pears.” As I mentioned at the top, he’s also being honored this month with a special award by the Academy of Country Music. More on that in a moment. But first, here now some of the video, some of the making of the new disc, “3 Pears.”

[Video clip of the making of “3 Pears”]

Dwight Yoakam: – and my dad was (unintelligible).

Tavis: Good to have you back on the program.

Yoakam: It’s good to see you.

Tavis: You been all right?

Yoakam: Good to be – yeah.

Tavis: It’s funny, I did not realize – I was talking to Chris, our producer. I did not realize that you have lived in L.A. for 30 years.

Yoakam: I said when I got lost trying to get to your studio, I should have known better because I worked, I drove air freight all through this area, drove, well, a couple different jobs.

Air freight was one, and I drove for one of the – Airborne, it’s sad; it’s even better than FedEx – and then I drove for another company that was based right over near the studio here. I drove bank checks, transporting checks at night, and it was really – everybody has a job. That was my job.

Tavis: That must have been a long time ago, though. (Laughter)

Yoakam: It was a long – well, I’m – knock wood, knock wood, I’ve been able to make a living with a guitar for a lot longer, and yeah, but I drove all over L.A. That was my life for a number of years. I’ve been out here – yeah, I came, I said at one point I was born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, but I grew up in California because it felt like I became an adult here.

It’s like I landed here, I dropped out weird, just talking about you being a Hoosier, and I dropped out of Ohio State and we did beat you in football every –

Tavis: And we beat you in basketball.

Yoakam: – every year. Oh, yeah, you (laughter) beat us bad.

Tavis: Yeah, well, the same is true of football, though, yeah.

Yoakam: But they stole that coach from Ohio State, Bobby Knight.

Tavis: That’s true, (unintelligible).

Yoakam: So we always felt like we had a –

Tavis: That’s very true. (Laughter)

Yoakam: But no, when we’d have a decent team and the Hoosiers would come over, it was just decency was out the window. It was like, it wasn’t going to work. But I left, I quite school and went to Nashville briefly, and then I came to the West coast in ’77, and it was still a great kind of feeling of the remnants of the country, the rock scene out here.

The Eagles were at the apex of their career, huge at that point. Linda Ronstadt was also at the zenith of her career, and I was kind of drawn, pulled by those beacons, and Emmylou Harris, the great singer who is based on the West Coast, and it became home.

L.A. is infectious. Once you’re here for very long, it’s a weightier place than what people realize, too.

Tavis: Why not Nashville, though?

Yoakam: It wasn’t – I got there in ’76, ’77. Even to this day, in retrospect now I understand, it’s a different business. The business there is songwriting, principally, and the way in the door is vis-à-vis songwriting.

Now ironically, because I’ve written most of my career, I’ve written almost all the material on this album and about 80 percent of my songs, but I was approaching it from a performance standpoint. In other words, I needed to get into a nightclub and stand up and present the material that way. I needed to present it live.

And there wasn’t, especially then – there’s more opportunity now in Nashville to perform and to make inroads that way, but it wasn’t that way in the ’70s. It was a company town that was in the business of songwriting, and you had to get a job as a staff songwriter.

As I look back now, I should have been knocking on doors of publishing companies and trying to get on staff as a songwriter. But it wouldn’t have given me the life that I’ve had and it wouldn’t have allowed me to evolve and have the career that I had.

Now, I came out here, I started playing the clubs up in the Valley, all over the – from the Palomino, and then we broke into the rock clubs in what was called the cow punk kind of movement that young punk rock kids in L.A. decided they wanted to play country music, and that allowed me an opportunity to go on this side of the hill, come out of the Valley and the country joints and play Club Lingerie, the Whiskey, the Roxy, all the –

Tavis: How do you develop – there’s two things I’ve been dying to ask you. I’ll ask them out of order. So first of all, in a place like L.A., where do you buy this get up at?

Yoakam: This getup? (Laughter)

Tavis: Who sells this in L.A., man? Like where –

Yoakam: These are Levis.


Tavis: Okay.

Yoakam: These actually –

Tavis: Are they 501s?

Yoakam: 517s.

Tavis: 517, excuse me.

Yoakam: 517s.

Tavis: All right.

Yoakam: It’s cut – people think that I, like, have them tailored in. I said, “You don’t have to.” 517 was called, it was a saddleman boot jean and it was a slim cut is what they –

Tavis: Uh-huh.

Yoakam: It goes back, this again, my age, it goes way back to the ’60s and ’70s. All the rodeo guys, that’s what they wore.

Tavis: Right, right.

Yoakam: But the ’80s, Wrangler took hold and we’re off into the new (unintelligible) here of jean companies, (laughter) but Wrangler was a looser fit, and cowboys, the population of cowboys started getting bigger (laughter) and they wanted wider seats.

When I was a kid, guys like Casey Tibbs, Casey Tibbs was the champion cowboy in the ’60s, and you wouldn’t catch those guys not wearing Levi, that red-tag Levi. They would go really long and they would cuff them up (unintelligible) turn the cuff. But these are off the rack and these boots are actually Rios of Mercedes.

But I bought them; the first pair that I bought were here in L.A. The Valley, what people don’t realize –

Tavis: They sell these hats in the Valley?

Yoakam: Yeah, in the Valley. You – well, there’s a couple places that you can still get hats blocks. Oh, gosh, it was a place over – King’s Western Wear was a mainstay in the Valley. They outfitted a lot of the movie – cowboy culture in L.A. goes back to the movies.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, Gene Autrey, oh, yeah.

Yoakam: All those guys, they’re scene cowboy.

Tavis: Will Rogers, yeah, yeah.

Yoakam: In fact, the Western Heritage Museum is right up the street from here.

Tavis: I’ve been there many times.

Yoakam: Yeah, and it’s built by Gene Autrey. So there was a legacy of it here and Manuel was Nude’s son-in-law, a gentleman named Manuel Cuevas. I went into Manuel’s shop and he blocked not this hat but the one that preceded it that I’ve still got, I wore for I think 29, 29 years. Got it in 1979.

Tavis: That’s a good hat.

Yoakam: Yeah.

Tavis: That last for 29 years?

Yoakam: Wore it out.

Tavis: Good Lord.

Yoakam: I’ve retired it. (Laughter) I caught it on the top of my car getting out and pulled it, like ripped it, and then said, “Okay, it’s,” but this was called an RCA block which stood for the Rodeo Cowboy Association. I went in to him and he tells the story, I said, “I want one of those what they call a bull rider block,” because the guys used to push it real hard, and the reason they, and they would yank it on the front and the back to make sure it stayed on.

Now again, rodeo’s different. They wear, like, helmets now with face masks, and it’s like (laughter), what sissy passed these out? It’s like that ain’t right. (Laughter) You’re wearing a – the cowboy hats are gone.

So I said, he said, “Oh, you mean the RCA block, rodeo cowboy,” and I said, “Okay, I stand corrected.” That was on Lankershim Boulevard in 1979 I got that hat, and I went back to him. I couldn’t afford his clothes.

I went back to him in 1985, the fall. I’d signed with Warner Brothers and actually had a little check, and I said, “I want to do some jackets for the band, the boleros, the stuff that people knew me for early on in the career, I said, “The old,” the Nude suits, they were called, because Nude was a Western tailor that did everybody from Elvis’s gold lame suit to – Manuel did the first jumpsuit at Nude’s for Elvis.

But the Beatles went to Nude’s and stuff, the Rolling Stones, everybody who came to L.A. kind of went to Nude’s, because he did all the cowboy movie stuff. They did Gene Autrey’s stuff. So I said, “I want to do these jackets,” I said, “But I don’t know how much it,” I said, “I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t want you to,” and he said, “Money is no object.” I said, “I’m in trouble.” (Laughter)

That’s when the story ever since, the people doing this said, “Money is no object.” I said, “Okay.” That’s the record business.

Tavis: So I wanted to ask about the clothes, and you answered that, but in L.A., how did you go about creating your own sound?

Yoakam: Pete Anderson, who was my first producer, and I, played the lead guitar for me, really conceived – I was – see, being born and rural Appalachia in southeast Kentucky, bluegrass, but more so mountain music was what was just in my DNA.

There’s a great book, “Outliers,” I don’t know if you’ve read it. It’s Malcolm –

Tavis: Malcolm Gladwell.

Yoakam: Yeah –

Tavis: He’s been on the show many times.

Yoakam: Oh. Well, Malcolm, “Tipping Point,” of course, everybody knows, but “Outliers” to me was really, it gave me great insight into my own culture and when he talks in the chapter and he talks about the feuds in Kentucky, this two-county area where all these murders, and he said they started to do research at the University of Michigan with that test, the double-blind kind of psych department test where they’d have these kids coming over to take a written test, they thought, and they were setting up an observed incident in a hallway, and all the young Southern guys took offense in a weird way that was beyond what anybody from the North.

Guys just shrug it off and go on. These weren’t even guys that lived there. It was like generations removed. I really do believe it’s an innate sense. What Malcolm’s, his analysis, the observations and that, it’s there, it’s in the DNA. We don’t escape our great, great grandparents. We have that in us, what all of us – that music was there.

So we moved to Ohio. Now, I’m listening to the explosion, and this record really has, it comes full circle in my life in that it’s all the stuff I heard on the car radio in Columbus, Ohio as a kid eight, nine, 10 years old. We moved out of Kentucky, it’s only 90 miles. You know Indiana’s a little – it’s an hour and a half drive, you’re there.

The culture, that whole Ohio Valley, is still – there’s another great book called “The United States of Appalachia” that is an analysis of our culture, how it was shaped, from Bessie Smith and Nina Simone coming out of the Appalachian Jane, greater Appalachia, right, giving us the culture that we all have and the historic perspective on that.

So that was there, and it was clearly in me and was never going to leave. So when I came to California there was an affinity that I had to two or three generations earlier, “The Grapes of Wrath” kind of migration that the Steinbeck-like Okies and Arkies and Texans that were blown out of the central plains to California. They were really ostracized.

Buck Owens was a friend, and he used to have a chip on his shoulder, and after he died I read something he said, and what he told me one time was about the shame he felt about his family being so poor that they had one toothbrush and they were passing it back and forth.

He said, “I looked at that and I swore I’d never be this poor ever again in my life.” Because somebody was asking him what drove him to be a successful businessman. So we’re shaped by all those disparate elements in our lives and the lives of people around us.

I got here and I started listening, and the Palomino was a famous nightclub, world-famous country nightclub, started in the early ’50s and lasted through the early ’90s, and everybody from Hank Williams Sr. had actually stopped there and played like in ’51, ’52; Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt.

Tommy Thomason owned it and told me one night, he looked at me and we’d just signed with Warner Brothers, and we had a line – I was really proud for him and for – that I was able to pull into that nightclub all these people – down the block they were lined up, and he said – he was paying me out that night at the end, and we’re in his office and he had the safe open and there was just money.

It was an experience like none other in terms of dealing with him all the time there. He had watched me over the preceding two years play his club and start to, and come from obscurity and start to become somebody who may be knocking on the door of being known.

He said, “I’ve been watching you.” He said, “The last person that did this I had to go the next time to see him at the Hollywood Bowl.” I said, “Wow.” He said, “You know who that was?” I said, “No.” He said, “Linda Ronstadt.” He said, “We had the same thing. She was here. The last show she played here, you couldn’t get in.” He said, “The next time I saw her,” he said, “I had to go to the Bowl theater.”

I’ve not played there, but he came, he – unfortunately, the show he came to see me at next was at the Universal Amphitheater.

Tavis: Big enough. (Laughter)

Yoakam: Which is where – yeah, no, no, that’s the next –

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Yoakam: So he passed away a couple of months after, and I always felt – anyway, I’m rambling.

Tavis: No, no, no, I’m loving it.

Yoakam: I’m on tangents here.

Tavis: I’m loving it. I want to ask about this record in a second, but you mentioned earlier that you dropped out of Ohio State.

Yoakam: Yeah.

Tavis: That obviously did not in any way curb your appetite for reading. You are a voracious reader. One can just listen to you and tell that.

Yoakam: Well, I read more probably after I dropped out of college, although university studies were – I found I was just so distracted and pulled by my heart to do what I wanted to pursue.

Tavis: That’s understandable.

Yoakam: That’s what – I think back and I’ve regretted many times, or lamented, that I didn’t finish academy studying. I just love knowledge. I think that we come to a greater understanding of the world we live in and ourselves through reading, and it’s – I hope that books don’t go the way of albums and CD, large format albums, and physical product.

Tavis: From your mouth to God’s ears.

Yoakam: Because we think differently, and they’ve done studies about the fact that – I keep talking to the rest of the crew. Sorry, I guess it’s kind of weird that I keep looking or pointing to people in the shadows.

We all go into different alpha rhythm when we pick up something and literally read it. My parents were not affluent people and were not – didn’t come from the extremities of education. My mother had a high school diploma. I often think I so wish she’d come out of the hills in Appalachia and been able to go on to college. I think she would have made a wonderful teacher.

She was a stickler for grammar; she knew sentence structure and subject, predicate and that. We were always pushed to speak correctly if and when possible. I’ve strayed from that a lot. But we were raised in a very adherent religious environment, and I grew up reading.

I’ve often said to her, she said at one point she felt bad that she didn’t encourage me. I was going to attend – I was raised in Church of Christ, which is the church that founded Pepperdine University. I had a desire to go there and I probably could have gotten some aid or some sort of academic aid and scholarship, but I was the first kid in the family and they were like, you’re going to go here or there, and she said it before.

I said, “You know what? Don’t worry about what happened. It’s not – what she gave me in my cultural past and what she gave me in the home environment and how we were raised, we didn’t read the classics and we weren’t taught the classics, but I was taught to read the King James version of the bible, and that’s an interesting read.

Not just because of the theology of it, but because of the sentence, the pentameter of the language, literally. James was the monarch who followed Elizabeth, so Elizabethan English gave us Shakespeare; King James gave us the New Testament, the Bible, the world that the English language could read.

So it’s an interesting – I’m half-literate. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re a little bit more than that. You’re being modest. So why is this project, the new one, called “3 Pears?”

Yoakam: (Laughter) Because the word in the song is actually the word P-A-I-R-S, pairs, as in pairs of two, but that doesn’t explain why I would spell it like fruit on the front.

Tavis: Precisely.

Yoakam: Other than illiteracy, I guess. (Laughter) No, I was – it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the moment that gave me the idea for the song, and that was watching the George Harrison documentary that Martin Scorsese did a couple of years ago called “In the Material World,” great, great piece on George.

Tavis: Absolutely. A great piece, absolutely.

Yoakam: I was watching that in the kitchen one night after I’d begun recording the album, and I was listening to him tell a story about he and John and the Beatles, and he was kind of saying, “Look, people thought we wrote lyrics that were drug-induced.”

He said, “Actually, we had very little dalliance with drugs in the Beatles. I guess they smoked pot, he said, and they dabbled a little bit with, like, some mind-opening guru, with taking acid. He said, “One night we had taken LSD,” he said, “Somewhere, and we didn’t have a bad trip with it or anything,” he said, “But John and I were out somewhere and someone slipped us acid in a nightclub in London,” he said, “And we didn’t freak out,” he said.

“We just don’t know where we were for a day and a half.” And I thought, “Didn’t know where the Beatles were, like, wandering around?” Polaroids must exist of (unintelligible) like in the carnival. As they said that, they cut to a piece of footage of John, Scorsese used a piece of film of John Lennon circa about ’66 or ’67, mod pop London.

Later on he had a shot of him, there’s a later point in his career where he has a shot with three pairs of sunglasses on, but this one, he had these big, Persol kind of wrap-around Italian sunglasses, but he had three pair of sunglasses on, stacked on each other at once, just being silly.

He was looking at whoever through all three pair, and I was watching and thinking, wow, what a sad, sad loss for all of us. John Lennon, 40 years old. I remember when he died. I was working in a cowboy bar out in the valley in 1980, and Delaney Bramlett, the great arranger and singer, and Bonnie and Delaney, Delaney and Bonnie, he came in and was really broken up over it.

I was upset, but I was probably 26 or 27 when it happened, and I thought, wow – or maybe 24. (Unintelligible) John is 40 years old. I that night in the kitchen looked up and thought 40 years old, from the other vantage point, the other side of 40, and wow, went, he was so young, and what we lost, what we lost.

I thought, when I saw it, I looked up and he was laughing, and I thought, yeah, three pairs of glasses, huh, John? I went, “Three pairs of glasses,” and I got up and started writing what became the title track.

So the word P-E-A-R as pears like the fruit was really a tongue-in-cheek reference to John, the Beatles, kind of –

Tavis: It never ceases to amaze me. I’ve talked to countless artists on this program over the years and it never ceases to amaze me where the inspiration for certain songs –

Yoakam: Yeah, you never know.

Tavis: – come from. It’s just amazing to me.

Yoakam: Very non-sequitur, the inspiration, and songs are their own entity to me. I try to listen to hear them over my shoulder somewhere. The song is kind of talking to me. Anyway.

Tavis: Nope. Well, there’s a lot of good stuff on this project. First time in seven years. Don’t stay gone so long next time.

Yoakam: I won’t. You’re in a different building.

Tavis: Don’t stay gone so long. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Yoakam: The next time.

Tavis: I was in a different building, and more importantly, your fans. (Laughter) That’s a long time, seven years, man. The new project by Dwight Yoakam is called “3 Pears,” P-E-A-R-S. Dwight, I’ve enjoyed this, and I’ve learned so much about you and your life and your inspiration, so thank you for coming on.

Yoakam: Well, I won’t hold you being a Hoosier against you.

Tavis: No, I won’t hold you, and I won’t hold you being a Buckeye against you either. (Laughter)

Yoakam: Down in Louisville they even hate you more. (Laughter) The UK fans, they –

Tavis: Yeah, they (unintelligible) hate us.

Yoakam: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: They really hate us.

Yoakam: They don’t like the Hoosiers.

Tavis: Yeah, but you come back anytime.

Yoakam: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: You Buckeye, you. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

[Video clip of Dwight Yoakam and band in the studio]

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Last modified: September 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm