Dwight Yoakam on New Bluegrass Album, Prince and Musical Rebellion

"[Bluegrass] was the punk of its day! People looked at it aghast," says Yoakam, who releases the new LP 'Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars. . .'

Dwight Yoakam talks about the influence of bluegrass on his long-running career. Credit: Emily Joyce

For 1992's Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, the banjo player Ralph Stanley, then 65 years old, worked with artists like George Jones, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss to create a concept double-album that was half-secular and half-gospel, with traditional sounds played by contem-porary artists. Dwight Yoakam took two tracks, and at the end of their session together, Stanley paid the younger artist the ultimate compliment. "We did 'Miner's Prayer' and 'Down Where the River Bends,' which was a Stanley Brothers song," Yoakam recalls. "And as we finished that night he said to me, 'Why… I believe you might be a bluegrass singer!'"

Yoakam's new album Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars. . . (out September 23rd) might prove Stanley right, rearranging songs like "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Please, Please Baby" with less electric guitar but plenty of fiddle, resonator and dobro. The combination produces a restless energy, and you can tell Yoakam was in a good mood when he recorded it – of the 12 tracks that made the final cut, he's only heartsick on 11.

"This is the first personal project I've ever done in Nashville," he says. "But we recorded the harmonies in L.A. That's what leads to the tongue-in-cheek title. I said, 'That band playing that way makes me want to rob a bank,' alluding to Bonnie & Clyde. And then someone in the band said, 'Yep, swimmin' pools and movie stars.'"

Onstage, Yoakam usually stays mum between songs, but over the phone, he talks at length about the outlaw history of Appalachia, the similarities between bluegrass and punk, and his motivation for ending the LP with a stripped-down rendition of "Purple Rain."

The first question has to be how you came to cover a Prince song.

We did 13 tracks in four days. The third day I was leaving my hotel to go to the studio, and out of the corner of my eye I saw breaking news on the muted television, something that said there's been a death at Prince's compound in Minneapolis. In the first four or five months of this year, there have been a large number of very luminous figures in music passing, but that was really an ambush for everybody. When I walked into the studio everyone was milling around, and I looked at the guys and said, "Man, let's sing 'Purple Rain.' Let's cut this for him." It was that spontaneous. I guess I got caught up in the emotion – even in his age he seemed of youth.

There's such a beauty to that melody. I remember the night I heard that for the first time on the radio here in Hollywood. I was driving around in my old beat-up El Camino. It came on and it kind of just stopped me where I was. I was not very far from Capitol Records, the pizza place by there I used to stop at. I stopped the car at the light and just saw that and listened to it. Like, "Wow. What a concept, what a song." And the melody was just kind of haunting. It never occurred to me to sing it that way, he so owned it.

I thought even after doing it with the band that it was just an ill-advised moment of emotional expression. I didn't listen to it when I began to do vocal sessions. Then [former Warner Bros. Records president] Lenny Waronker came by and I played it for him and he looked up and said you have to put it on the record. So we put it on as a little addendum to the album.

It's a surprising way to end the album.

I hope we did justice to it. The melody can haunt you. There's such a purity and innocence to it. I don't think that maybe it's a musical approach he would have taken [laughs] but it works for us.

For how long have you wanted to do a bluegrass album?

I guess from birth, maybe. I was born in Pikeville, Kentucky. You don't get any more steeped in mountain music than you do in that Southeastern corner of Kentucky. It borders Virginia, where the Carter Family came from, where the Stanley Brothers came from. And just over to the west is where Bill Monroe came from. So I grew up hearing it. Singing that way was never something I had to be taught. There have been several moments in my career, even with the first album you hear it on "Miner's Prayer," there are elements of it. "Bury Me" is basically a bluegrass song in hiding.

When you re-recorded these songs, was there anything you were able to express in bluegrass that you hadn't been able to express before?

They're not sharing space for your attention as much as they are in more contemporary produc-tion. We very deliberately on this album did – and I'm about to contradict myself on this next statement – about as pure an approach was we could in the tracking of the songs. I did all those lead vocals in a very traditional way. But when I began to do the harmonies, on songs like "Listen," I think we did some things that were very non-traditional that almost echoed the California of the Beach Boys and maybe even bits of the Byrds. Chris Hillman, ironically, co-founder of the Byrds, was a bluegrass mandolin player. That history was always there in the room, in my mind, and there were elements of that surrounding what we were doing in the latter stages of finishing the record in L.A.

Country records often gets sorted into categories like traditional or pop. Bluegrass usually falls under the former, but is there a way out of that binary?

I think that musical artists think of music without categories, often. I like all forms of music. I've always been infatuated with Tony Bennett singing "Fly Me to the Moon." Is there a necessity for there to be a Dewey Decimal System applied to how music sits on the shelf? There needs to be some organization, obviously. Radio had a need for that, to let people know where on the dial they were gonna hear certain kinds of thing, certain types of music.

Lenny told me some things that were touching and insightful about Prince, about the first time he was in the studio with him. The very thing you're talking about, Lenny brought up. And Prince said to him, pleading to Lenny, "If I give you this trust, will you guard that trust and not just limit me as an artist based on race and culture?" Prince knew that he was a pop star, that he could talk beyond genre.

This record was done in a very traditional way. But the band was really willing to set aside the conventions of contemporary bluegrass record techniques, do things that were maybe a little unorthodox. In my way of thinking they had a lot of Jimmy Martin in 'em. If you want to listen to something that influenced this album greatly and mightily, it's Jimmy Martin and a record my grandpa had in his living room up the holler in Floyd County, Kentucky. He's an example of a certain reckless abandon that stayed in bluegrass. Because bluegrass musicians were the rock & rollers of their day. Hopefully we carried the spirit of Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs.

This seems to have been lost even among some bluegrass fans, that back in the Forties, this was really sensational stuff.

Oh, man. It was the punk of its day! People looked at it aghast. That's why the Coen brothers used it so deftly in O Brother, Where Art Thou? as outsider music. The band in that movie, the Soggy Bottom Boys, were this outrageous, rebellious expression of culture that the big daddy politician finally embraced to his own ends. They were the rebels. Look, listen to "Country Honk," the Stones' stripped-down, almost bluegrass version of "Honky Tonk Woman." Mick and I co-wrote a song several years ago called "What's Left of Me," and he and I talked about the influence of country music and what he'd always liked about it. The raucousness, the rebellious-ness has always been there. You go listen to Jimmy Martin, listen to "Widow Maker." Late '50s to the late '60s. By that time maybe some of the bluegrass had been a little more tame or ap-proachable by polite society. But Jimmy Martin was reckless to the end.

Where do you think that rebellious spirit came from?

It came out of the culture. They were the outcasts, they were the sharecroppers, they were the coal miners. I don't know if you've ever read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. There's a chapter in there where he talks about Southeastern Kentucky. They couldn't keep circuit judges working in Harlan County because the culture was born of feudal culture. He points to those ar-eas of the world which are not hospitable to agrarian culture, and people have to make their live-lihood from what they can hold onto. So they're usually herding cultures. Well, a man's herd can be stolen from him overnight. And if you look at those cultures, they're quick to rise up in rebel-lion.

The Scottish, the Irish, the inhospitable areas of Northern England: Those gaelic cultures there gave us what became traditional country music in America, and they were the ones that first es-tablished an independent outpost in the Appalachian Mountains. There's another great read called The United States of Appalachia. The author puts forth that back before the American revolution, in addition to Daniel Boone, there were people down in the Southernmost reaches of Virginia and western North Carolina who established a free and sovereign state. Until the British assaulted it and put down that rebellion, it was the first bid for sovereignty, and it was born of that culture.

That county where I was born was where the Hatfields and the McCoys feud occurred. There's a strong sense of independence and wanting to control your own destiny. Anyways, it's there in the music. It's always there.