Published On: Mon, Mar 6th, 2017

Classic Album: Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam

Dismissed by Nashville as “not ready for radio”, Dwight Yoakam found a sympathetic ear in the LA punk scene, cranked up the volume… and made a classic debut album that turned the country world on its ear, writes Bill DeMain.

Nashville is famously nicknamed Music City. But it could just as well be Mule City. Mule, as in “stubborn as a,” especially when it comes to the idea of change in country music. When a fiery young Dwight Yoakam arrived there in 1977 with a handful of honky-tonk original songs, country radio was overrun by gauzy soft-pop ditties like Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, It Was Almost Like A Song and Lucille.

The lean, mean sound of Willie, Waylon and the outlaws had all but faded out. Disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm for his hillbilly ideals, Yoakam did what any enterprising young man would do.

He went West. And to him, ‘West’ meant the land of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield Sound. “When I got to LA, it was the transition from the outlaws to the beginnings of the ‘urban cowboy’ movement – and that music just went beyond the apex of the curve and off the road,” Yoakam says, with a laugh. “It just didn’t interest me at all.”

You can understand why. Yoakam’s roots are authentic Appalachian – born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, to a coal-mining family. As a kid, he soaked up everything from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash to The Rolling Stones. He says: “I’d written songs since I was young. I hadn’t been able to have it coalesce in a cohesive kind of fashion, where it flowed with any strength, until my early adult years. And that’s when Merle Haggard’s writing, Buck Owens’s writing, and John Prine’s writing really started having a major impact in my life, and became inspirational.”

Return Ticket to Nashville
In Los Angeles, Yoakam started an apprenticeship of steady gigging in blue-collar country bars, playing mostly covers of 1950s and 60s standards, occasionally slipping in one of his own tunes. With a growing catalogue of originals, he took a second run at Nashville in 1981.

“I tried to pitch songs,” he recalls. “I had a few more contacts, vis-a-vis some folks I’d met in LA by that time. But that still was not the moment there for me, and it wasn’t going to happen. So I came back out to LA, put my shoulder to the grindstone and continued to play. I quit playing the country bars and started playing the showcase clubs and just did my own material. I made less money, but in the long run, had an opportunity to make a living doing it.”

Shortly after Yoakam’s return, fate brought Pete Anderson into the picture. The Detroit-born guitarist and aspiring producer had been cutting his teeth on the West coast scene for a decade.

“A friend gave me a demo tape of Dwight’s and I was really impressed with the songs,” Anderson says. “We met a few weeks later, and bonded immediately. We both loved the classic Grand Ole Opry stuff – Hank Sr., Lefty Frizzell, Stonewall Jackson, Minnie Pearl.

As we got to know each other, I was smart enough to think, ‘I write songs, but I don’t write songs like this. And I certainly don’t sing as well as this guy.’ Dwight needed maybe some structure and help with arrangements. As the guitarist, I was the lead instrument, so I started working out intros and outros, and finding single-line hooks that complemented his voice.”

Bolo Ties and Cowboy Hats
Rounding out their band with bass and drums, Yoakam and Anderson soon found themselves drawn into the maelstrom of a hot new West Coast trend called ‘cowpunk’. “It was an extension of punk,” explains Anderson. “Lone Justice, Blood On The Saddle and some other young bands who were enamoured with country music.

But really, they couldn’t play it. They tried. They’d been in punk bands the year before and were saying, ‘Hey, let’s try country music.’ It was charming, but it wasn’t real. A buzz grew around the cowpunk scene because it was young kids. So Dwight said, ‘What if we started playing our stuff in clubs with these bands?’ So we snuck into the cowpunk scene and told everybody, ‘Yeah, we’re cowpunk.’

We wore bolo ties and cowboy hats. We turned up our instruments. We were a bit older and pretty accomplished musicians at that point, so we were burning it up. The newspaper would send a critic to cover some younger band that we were opening for, and they’d go, ‘Whoa, who’s this Dwight guy?!’ We did a lot of damage pretty quick.”

“That we appealed to young rock audiences is not that surprising, when you consider that hillbilly music was the white parent of rock ’n’ roll,” adds Yoakam. In 1986, he told NME: “There was an emotional integrity to what we were doing. The arrangement has to do with twin fiddles as opposed to string sections, two-and three-part hillbilly harmonies as opposed to the choral groups that Chet Atkins brought in with the Nashville Sound in the 60s.

Performance has to do with the way the artist performs the song, literally – in other words, the difference between Ray Price in 1956 singing through his nose on Heartaches By The Number and Ray Price in 1962 trying to sound like Tony Bennett. Those three things, that’s integrity of form. That’s what makes it country, or not country. We had all that in mind.”

With the buzz getting louder, it was only a matter of time – and a $5,000 credit-card advance loan from a friend of Yoakam’s – before the songs were committed to tape. Setting up in Excalibur, a little recording studio behind a sewing-machine shop, the band worked the graveyard shift.

Anderson recalls: “Back then, there was a deal with a lot of studios. If you left the tapes with them so they could control your masters, the studios would say, ‘When no one’s here, from midnight to 8am, you can record for 20 bucks an hour.’ And they’d hold on to the tapes, like a layaway program. At the end, you’d pay everything off and get the tapes.”

Six songs in, their five grand almost gone, Yoakam and Anderson moved to an even lower-budget studio, Hit City West, to mix the record. “We’d arrive at 11:30, have the tapes up by midnight and start mixing,” says Anderson. “Remember, this was long before automation and Pro Tools, so it was three of us kneeling in front of a mixing board at three in the morning, pushing faders, twisting knobs, holding down mutes, going, ‘Okay, ready? Un-mute the fiddle. Did you get it? Ride it up. Pull it down.’ It was definitely fly by the seat of your pants-style mixing.”

But even 30 years on, the songs still sound as tight and form-fitting as Yoakam’s signature blue jeans. There’s geographical autobiography in Miner’s Prayer, dedicated to Dwight’s grandpa Luther Tibbs, and I’ll Be Gone, which sounds plucked right out of the bluegrass state where Yoakam was born, with a nod to Bill Monroe.

Twenty Years has a Bakersfield chicken-pickin’ stutter, while a cover of Heartaches By The Number pays tribute to the Dean of country songwriters, Harlan Howard. The standout is It Won’t Hurt, a perfect tear-in-the-beer distillation of the classic sound that Yoakam and Anderson were aiming for.

Yoakam licensed the EP to California Oak Records, an LA indie label known for its hardcore-punk roster. “We made it on a 12-inch so we could get rack space in record stores,” Anderson recalls. “EPs back then were routinely pressed on 7-inch. Oak printed up 5,000 copies. And they started mailing boxes of them all over the United States, to various newspapers.

Dwight Yoakam

So the reviewer of, say, The Orlando Sentinel would get 15 records from LA at the height of the punk scene, so he’d have Butthole Surfers, Hell Comes To Your House and then Dwight Yoakam, and it’d be like, ‘What’s this?!’ It was as if you’d ordered a bag of peanuts and there was a giant chocolate bar in the middle of it! We got a lot of attention, incredible press and it started building and building.

“IRS Records offered us a deal,” Anderson continues. “They had The Police, The Go-Go’s. They wanted to have [Police drummer] Stewart Copeland produce us, and Dwight and I were like, ‘Uh, no, that’s not gonna work.’ Finally, I told Dwight, ‘Look, we’re playing shows with Los Lobos and The Blasters, and we’re part of this cowpunk scene, but when the smoke clears, we’re country, straight up. We’re going to need a deal out of Nashville. That’s the only way into country radio.’”

Radio Ready
At the time, the ‘It producer’ and gatekeeper in Music City was MCA’s Jimmy Bowen. Yoakam got the EP to him, and Bowen famously pronounced it “not ready for radio”. And the radio Bowen referred to was still dominated by sugary hits like Ronnie Milsap’s Lost In The Fifties Tonight and Exile’s Hang On To Your Heart. “It ended up the number-one record in the country a year later,” Yoakam said in 1986. “That shows you what he knows!”

Anderson says: “I later had a meeting with Bowen that was pretty funny. He thought everything revolved around him. Nashville is important, sure, but there’s a whole world out there. We were talking, and he had a Big Gulp soda and a couple of joints, and he said, ‘You know, Pete, I might’ve made a mistake not signing Dwight. But when I had Dwight and Steve Earle on the table, I had to go with the real songwriter.’ And I’m thinking, “What the…?!” I was shocked. He didn’t even read the credits.

He didn’t know that Dwight wrote all those songs. I thought, ‘You’re not gonna find another songwriter as good as Dwight in the last three decades.’”

Though Bowen’s dismissal scared off a lot of other Nashville labels, a young A&R woman named Paige Rowden at Warner Brothers made Yoakam’s EP her cause. “Paige was our champion,” says Anderson. “She kept bugging Jim Ed Norman, the head of Warners, and said, ‘I want you to sign this guy now!’ When they did sign us, we told them, ‘You get what you get – you’re not touching these tracks we’ve recorded.’ We just didn’t feel like they needed to be done over again.

So they gave us money to finish, and we went into Capitol Studios to cut four more songs [including Honky Tonk Man, Bury Me and Guitars, Cadillacs] and added them to the EP. We kept the artwork. Bam, just like that we had a hit record.”

Released in March 1986, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. quickly flew up the country charts, made impressive inroads on the pop side as well and launched a handful of hit singles in Honky Tonk Man (#3), Guitars, Cadillacs (#4) and It Won’t Hurt (#31). The album went double-platinum, a rare feat for country artists in the 1980s.

Cowpunk aside, Yoakam also helped define a country movement later tagged ‘New Traditionalist’. Along with Randy Travis, Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash and k.d. lang, he steered the genre back towards its rural roots, shrugging off the slick pop sounds of the early 80s. His debut also began a run of 11 successful album collaborations with Anderson – Hillbilly Deluxe (1987), This Time (1993) and Gone (1995) still stand as unequalled benchmarks from modern country music’s catalogue.

Unfortunately, the dynamic duo fell out in 2002, with Anderson suing Yoakam, alleging he breached an oral contract by failing to perform some tour dates. They’ve never made amends.

Pete Anderson, now 68, has continued to produce, working with artists from Willie Nelson to Tanya Tucker, while making his own mostly instrumental guitar albums. “Dwight and I sort of blazed our own trail and did what we wanted because he had an extraordinary amount of talent,” he says. “He had great songs, and songs rule the roost, no matter what.

If I hear that first album now, I usually turn it off pretty quick. I’m proud of it, of course, but it sounds rough, kind of clanky, very young. I’ve made a lot of records since, over the years, and so I hear things I’d do differently.”

Yoakam, 60, has balanced his music career with many acting roles (most famously Sling Blade, and more recently in the Amazon hit series Goliath, both alongside friend Billy Bob Thornton), recently released a bluegrass-flavoured album Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars. Looking back at his 1986 debut, Yoakam says: “I wasn’t trying to be revivalist or trying to take country beyond country.

The way I always think of it is this – all I’m doing is justice to the form, in keeping with the tradition of the form. What I do is meant to reaffirm the validity of that music. Quality is timeless. It will clearly define itself. And so I make reference to and acknowledge things that I feel have been dismissed, trying to restate those musical and cultural elements clearly and vehemently.”



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