The West

LA s hillbilly sonic rocker
Dwight Yoakam. Picture: Supplied.

Dwight Yoakam's office sits high up in a typical glass-and-steel corporate tower on Sunset Boulevard, with a view which can make him sigh with pleasure at the unexpected beauty of this not- always-attractive city. "Look at downtown, look at the light, huh," he interrupts at one point. "LA sometimes reminds me of Sydney in terms of the light and how it refracts at times of the year."

But down the uniformly bland hall from the uniformly ordinary lifts of this otherwise indistinguishable building, his rooms have cowhide lounges, a well- preserved saddle in a corner, big leather chairs, and pre-World War II wooden furniture.

Homely, even earthy, in a kind of old-fashioned way.

That sounds about right for one of the biggest country music stars of the 80s and 90s, who has announced that he will play east coast shows later this year, and one of a handful of people who can legitimately be described as game changers. No, not just for the resurrection of the big hat and tight jeans as the uniform for any male country singer, but also for the return of white America's soul music to the upper reaches of the charts and the centre of music industry spreadsheets.

However, look around the office and there's plenty to remind you that Yoakam - named Dwight David Yoakam, after a quintessential American hero of the 20th century, president Dwight David Eisenhower - has never quite fitted the cliches of that most conservative strand of American music.

There's the fact we're not in Nashville but in Los Angeles, where Kentucky-born Yoakam has lived for more than 30 years, and that throughout the rooms are artefacts and memorabilia of 60s pop and posters from the films in which he's acted.

A gig poster on the back of one door gives you a sense of how Yoakam, 55, really didn't fit the mould, ever.

It's for a show in Amsterdam in the early 90s and his support act are fellow Los Angelenos, Concrete Blonde, indie rockers who were as likely to play country music as they were to vote Republican.

The truth is that what Yoakam called hillbilly music - his boisterous mix of the high Appalachians and the big honky tonk of one of his heroes, Buck Owens - has always been just a little bit too country for the establishment.

When the Nashville nabobs saw just how much more money could be made with "country music" which sounded more and more like pop and rock, they found the likes of Yoakam and Emmylou Harris, like the 70s "outlaws" Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, a tad embarrassing.

"Ironically, Willie and Emmylou in their attitude were so removed from mainstream country music that they had more in common with rock audiences and rock musicians," Yoakam says admiringly.

That's why, even when he was at his commercial peak, selling 25 million albums, Yoakam remained an outsider, more likely to be admired by fans who crossed over to explore rock's roots in country music, than those who claimed to like both kinds of music - country and western.

He says that's partly down to location because, "I'm as physically removed from (Nashville) as you can go without swimming". It's more than distance though, it's also attitudinal.

Having begun his LA life playing alongside the underground bands, and so-called cow punks like the Blasters, after growing up a Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Burrito Brothers fan, he has never wanted to be constricted.

"I made a decision in the 70s, after going to Nashville and exploring what the world was there, that that wasn't where I would find my way," says Yoakam, who today is without his hat, his thin grey hair hanging long at the back but sparse across the top.

"I'd been drawn sonically here in an immediate sense by Emmylou Harris. I'd watched in college the beacon that Emmylou Harris was from the west coast, from this outpost, making this pertinent, contemporary version of country music. Her's was more pure country than country rock. But it didn't have boundaries."

You could say much the same thing about Yoakam's new album, his first studio album in seven years, called 3 Pears.

The album, released next month, has got high vocals and near-yodels, drums with snap and guitars with big open sky sounds. But there's also a song co-written with former rock rapper turned roots act, Kid Rock.

And another he calls "very cow punk, aggressive", produced by Beck, splashes of soul music, and several tracks with harmonies he attributes to channelling the Beatles channelling the Everly Brothers.

3 Pears is out on September 21.

Bernard Zuel travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of Warner Music.

The West Australian

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