Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Cross-Training

Yoakam hits stride with music, films.

By Michael McCall

JUNE 8, 1998:  You can't blame Dwight Yoakam's fans for thinking that the singer cares more about acting these days than he does about making music. In the last few years, his onscreen work has been exemplary: He gave a dead-on portrayal of a menacing boyfriend in Sling Blade, played a poker-faced explosives expert in The Newton Boys, and personified a steely World War II colonel in HBO's When Trumpets Fade. With these roles, Yoakam has proven that his acting skills go far beyond the usual cardboard characterizations that most musical performers give in front of a camera.

At the same time, though, his stature in the music world has started to slip. While his acting has gotten rave notices, his records have started drawing negative reviews. True, his last few albums haven't been his best; in the past couple of years, he's released a collection of cover songs, a Christmas LP, and a live-in-concert compilation. More to the point, his sales have started to fall off.

But Yoakam's new Long Way Home should head his music in the right direction again. With a back-to-basics sound, the album recaptures the sly, succinct brilliance of his older records. In a way, the stripped-down songs take him back to the honky-tonks and the mountains that inspired his original breakthrough albums of the '80s. After growing increasingly abstract and experimental on such superb '90s albums as This Time and Gone, Yoakam strips away the horn and organ accents to present a collection of straightforward, traditional country music.

"It's very minimal," Yoakam says of the album. "It's also more introspective. Because of that, ironically, it's more accessible to other people." But, the singer says, Long Way Home is not a return to the classic-country sound of his first two releases, 1986's landmark Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. and its equally stellar follow-up, Hillbilly Deluxe. "There are pretty large deviations as far as musical turns and twists," he says. "There certainly are musical explorations that you wouldn't have had on the first two albums. And there are lyrical musings that you wouldn't have heard."

As an example, he points to the chorus of one of his songs, "These Arms." The tune begins as a standard shuffle, a form that Yoakam has mastered. Sounding every bit as good as a Ray Price hit, the song builds in classic two-step form until a guitar hammers a staccato burst of sound at the start of a chorus. From there, "These Arms" erupts with a narcotic swirl of carnival sounds that's more akin to Phil Spector's obsessive pop productions than to any archetypal country record.

"I felt myself going in that direction a lot with this album," Yoakam explains. "Taking classic forms and twisting new ideas into them." In truth, no one recasts and reconstitutes classic country better than Yoakam does. Though both Gone and This Time were welcome forays into new musical territory, his return to honky-tonk music comes as an equally compelling and unexpected move. It also suggests that he's not ready to leave his recording career behind--even as he begins to try his hand at scripting and directing movies.

"One [career] doesn't exclude the other for me," he says, speaking in the same low, anxious monotone that he used for the character of Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade. "One type of creative work continues to act as a catalyst for the others, at least for me." As an example, he relates how being on the set of The Newton Boys inspired him to write songs for Long Way Home, but not in the ways one might expect.

"It wasn't anything specifically connected to the film that motivated me," he explains. "It was the environment peripheral to that film. Being that involved in reading and working with a screenplay--that kind of writing in general, that kind of prose--inspired thought about words, and it propelled me into doing things musically."

Yoakam hadn't brought a guitar with him to Austin, Texas, where the movie was shooting on location. But his role only consumed three or four days out of the weekly filming schedule. That left him with a lot of time on his hands. "I wasn't planning on writing," he says. "But I ended up going out and finding a guitar. I found that the solitude afforded by the removal from distraction, being isolated in a hotel, was really conducive to finding the necessary stillness for me to create."

As a result of that necessary stillness, Long Way Home is the first Yoakam album to consist entirely of self-penned compositions. (On previous records, the singer has always included songwriting collaborations or cover tunes.) In the meantime, he has also finished work on a script for a baroque Western that he hopes to direct. He's already got financial backing for the film--tentatively titled South of Heaven, West of Hell--but he's careful not to talk about it too much.

"I've done about eight or nine films now, and the thing I've learned about the film business is that you can never be certain that anything is going to happen until you're living on the other side of it having happened by a month," he laughs. "Having said that, it looks like we appear to have made a deal to possibly make the movie in the fall."

Without a doubt, Yoakam has enjoyed a creative burst in the past 18 months. But of late, he says, that creativity has started to dry up--because he's spending too much damned time talking to reporters. "The most debilitating thing, the most distracting thing an artist can do, I think, is discuss their involvement in the creation of material. Because you're not doing it, you're talking about it."

Such a statement may sound contradictory coming from Yoakam, whose career took off in the '80s because of glowing support from the press. Indeed, Yoakam, as much as any performer, was responsible for bringing renewed attention to country music in mainstream newspapers and high-profile magazines--mostly because he provided colorful copy with his complex social theories and his angry tirades about record executives.

But in recent years, the singer says, media demands for interview time have become outrageous. He has spent the last 90 days doing little more than talking about music and movies, and he's sick of it. "At the end of the day, all that matters is, 'Is it a source of inspiration for anybody? Is it something I drew satisfaction from myself, first and foremost?,' " he asks. "I hate to taint that with these prolonged, never-ending, ceaseless discussions!"

The way he sees it, time-consuming interviews do nothing but compromise his art. But he grudgingly acknowledges they're part of his job. "That's the nature of how its marketed for commercial purposes--and, believe me, I've made a substantial living off of making music. But," he counters, "I don't know how much depends on my engaging in it. I think the record labels and the marketers use that as an easy, convenient, non-provable mule to drive it to market. Really, what we're doing is serving to provide fodder for these other parasitic media cannons. I think I should probably just make music or act and do what I do and let someone else discuss it."

Yep, sure sounds like Dwight Yoakam is back. But don't go asking him about his new record--just listen to it.

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