Yoakam might treat the language like so much cud, but when he bellers in song, the sound is classic country, full of the kind of lonesome, cry-in-your-beer self-expression that used to be the hallmark of the genre. And judging by the success of his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., it's a sound that country music fans have been longing to hear again. Disaffected by Nashville's steady move toward mainstream pop, older country aficionados lined up right alongside the young California cow punks who were among Yoakam's first fans to help Guitars reach No. 1 on the country charts and cross over onto Billboard's Top Pop album list, a feat few country albums have managed in recent years. The LP showcases a style that Buck Owens, himself a California country boy, describes like this: "He's the comin' thing. He's creative; he's out of the mainstream. He's far enough out that he just might be in." Yoakam himself likens his style to "when Ray Price used to sing through his nose before he became Tony Bennett."
Yoakam began his professional career in 1974 at age 18, playing the honky-tonk circuit in the Ohio Valley. After a couple of years on the road, he launched an assault on country music's capital but was rebuffed. At the time, he says, "They said I was 'too country' for Nashville. It's been written and overwritten, dwelled upon and beat to death," he says of the period, when country music was being sweetened to appeal to a broader audience. Looking back, he adds, the initial rejection was a good thing: "That brought us to the dance."
Spurned in Tennessee, he waltzed out to California in 1978 and "starved for a long time." But a steady stream of local gigs and a six-song EP eventually brought him to the attention of Warner Bros.' Jim Ed Norman, a Nashville-based producer who was tired of the "synthesized pop, '60s kind of music" country had become. In 1985 the pair signed a record deal that Yoakam says was made in hillbilly heaven. Norman, says the singer, "came with a great willingness to operate with absolute integrity from the very git-go."
Yoakam learned to talk like that from his parents, Ruth and David, who moved from the coal mining town of Pike Floyd Hollow, Ky. to Columbus, Ohio when he was young. But Yoakam says his parents "paid a price" for abandoning Appalachia and searching for a place in the American mainstream. "They were ridiculed," Yoakam says. "They talked with a heavy accent. Within a generation, the accent's gone. With that goes the rural Appalachian colloquial expressions and hillbilly art forms. That's tragic."
Yoakam tries to keep the legacy alive through music—a goal that has caused him to streamline the rest of his life. His one-bedroom apartment is spartan. "I don't like clutter in my records, and I don't like it in my home," he explains. He has a sweetheart, but they don't live together. "I always try to keep things at arm's length," he says. "I've got a couple of years to make what I do artistically successful. My music is very personal. I've created it in solitude. I face a white wall and beller. I like that sound—the expression of loneliness. That's what it's all about."
From the Hee Haw logo on the brim of his favorite cap to the steel tips of his ostrich-skin cowboy boots, Dwight Yoakam looks exactly like a Hollywood Hillsbilly should. A country singer who lives in Hollywood and composes music while sitting in a calfskin-backed director's chair, Yoakam even stables a palomino at Malibu where the dandies, not the dogies, do roam. But he is a real country boy, as authentic as that born-in-Dogpatch moniker. Don't believe it? Just listen: "I like to sit, stare at the wall and beller," the 29-year-old Kentucky-bred singer drawls. "Beller emotions. Howl at the ceiling. I'm doin' what I do. It's just Dwight Yoakam. It come in these ears, rolled around and come out this mouth the way it comes out."