Dwight Yoakam: Honky Tonk Man

Dwight Yoakam launched a life in music at precisely the wrong time. But over the ensuing decades, he helped bend country music – or at least a significant part of it – in the direction he pursued. For his efforts, he has become a commercially successful and critically acclaimed artist, winning two Grammys and awards from each of the three largest organizations in the genre.

Kentucky-born Yoakam hit Nashville intent on furthering his career. But at the time, the prevailing style in country music focused on the kind slick pop exemplified by the 1980 film Urban Cowboy. Yoakam’s own music drew more from harder-edged honky tonk country. Frustrated with Nashville, he moved on to Los Angeles. There, thanks in part to his commitment to rough-hewn authentic country, he fell in with the rockabilly and punk scenes where his music was appreciated for its unvarnished authenticity.

Without the backing of a label, Yoakam managed to finance his debut EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Reprise soon offered him a contract, and released an expanded, album-length version of the record in 1986. Sailing against the prevailing winds of country-pop, the album soared to Billboard‘s #1 spot, and three of its singles made it to the country Top 40 chart. That year Yoakam received the Top New Male Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music.

Having established that there truly was a market for his brand of country, Yoakam continued to tour and release albums. Both Hillbilly Deluxe (1987) and 1988’s Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room reached the top spot on the country album charts; they also fared reasonably well on the mainstream chart, showing that the singer-guitarist’s appeal extended beyond country.

Yoakam’s first two albums of the ’90s continued his Platinum-selling streak, and by the end of that decade he had earned Grammy awards as well as being named CMT Europe’s Artist of the Year for 1993. His collaborations were equally well-regarded; Yoakam worked with Patty Loveless, kd lang, Buck Owens, Ralph Stanley, John Prine and many others.

In retrospect, Dwight Yoakam’s career seems linear and consistent; unlike many artists, he never really suffered a creative slump nor a fall from commercial favor; instead he continued to pursue his own musical vision, building and maintaining a solid fan base. At present, his list of award nominations (as opposed to wins) fills a page: he’s been nominated for more than 15 Grammy Awards as well as multiple CMA and ACM awards.

But he still scores wins, too. In 2007 Yoakam won the County Music Association’s International Touring Artist award. And in 2013 the relatively new Americana Music Association – created as an institutional alternative to the still-prevailing slick country that rules the airwaves – recognized Yoakam for his recent achievements by naming him its Artist of the Year.

In between touring and recording commitments, Yoakam has cultivated an acting career; his most recent notable role was as a character on Billy Bob Thornton’s Goliath television series. Yoakam also holds the distinction of being the most frequent musical guest in the history of The Tonight Show. His 2016 album Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… was a bluegrass-tinged release, but two subsequent non-album tracks (“Then Here Came Monday” and “Pretty Horses,” both released last year) found Yoakam returning to his inimitable honky-tonk style.

Always playing by his own rules, Yoakam toured with fellow outsiders Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle for much of 2018. He’s currently touring as a solo artist.