The headliners at each year's McDowell Mountain Music Festival have always been a little hard to classify or pigeonhole into a certain genre, much like the annual three-day event itself. Ditto for singer/songwriter Dwight Yoakam, who ostensibly can be classified as country-rock, but doesn't easily fit easily into either category.
Such has been the case for most of his career. When Yoakam started out in the mid-eighties, he faced something of an uphill battle. He was considered too country for Nashville (which was starting to move Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys out of the way to make room for more pop-oriented county), and his music -- steeped in blues, Bakersfield, and the British Invasion -- made him too rock for country fans.
The singing/songwriting crooner is one of those artists who is a genre unto himself and doesn't make compromises, which he explained in an interview with the British music website MusicRadar.com last year.
"I've been able to sustain a substantial livelihood without ever being asked to compromise. Nobody has ever forced me to do that. I wouldn't know how, anyway," Yoakam says. "Thinking about other artists who never went along -- be it Neil Young or your example, Johnny Cash -- they really sustained a pertinence to their own inner voices."
If you think Yoakam has changed his mind on compromise in his later years, you would be sorely mistaken. His latest album, 3 Pears," defies categorization. The title of the 2012 record is taken from a scene in the Martin Scorsese documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and it's Yoakam's second without the help of his longtime collaborative partner, musician and producer Pete Anderson.
Yoakam had no shortage of potential collaborators for his latest project, however. The heartfelt opening track "Take A Hold of My Hand" was co-written by Detroit rock musician Kid Rock. It was a song that took years for Yoakam to create, but found inspiration in Rock's hands. As Yoakam explains to MusicRadar, it "only took 20 years and three hours to write" that particular song.
"I had partially written it in 1990 or '91. I fooled with it and fooled with it, and I had that initial hook and that melody -- 'Take hold of my hand, and I'll do what I can,' I went over to Kid's place...and I played that little bit for him, and he got all excited," Yoakam says. "He fired up a cigar and started pacing back and forth -- he's a pacer. Then he sat down at the keyboard while I played guitar. We tossed things back and forth, back and forth. He drove it home, you know. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that -- in addition to the publishing."
While working with Kid Rock doesn't seem to unusual for this country boy (given the Detroit rocker's love of down-home genres), Yoakam's collaboration with Beck on two songs for 3 Pears may seem a little odd. Beck's landmark albums Sea Change and Mellow Gold were fresh on Yoakam's mind when the two worked together producing the songs "Missing Heart" and "A Heart Like Mine."
"I got curious about him," Yoakam told Billboard Magazine in 2012. "He and I had bumped into each other at a Sheryl Crow birthday show at the El Rey Theatre. We both played that night; we chatted but never engaged each other musically. So I just reached out, and I got a call back to say, 'He's interested.'"
And when they met, the ideas started flowing.
"We sat down in my office and had a four-hour meeting. I sang a few things, but I think only one of them made it to the album," Yoakam says. "A whole shift happened in my label situation, and it put things in limbo for a while. After a while, though, as it turned out, Beck called me back, and I started talking to him about a Creedence-y thing that I was thinking about."
Now might be the time to catch one of Yoakam's shows, which have been known to be walloping barn-burners with the artist covering everything from Elvis Presley to the Bee Gees. It was recently announced that the hyphenate artist, who has stolen scenes from everyone from Jodie Foster, Jared Leto, and Billy Bob Thornton, will have a character arc in season two of Under The Dome, the CBS series based on the Stephen King novel.
In fact, the artist Yoakam could probably most easily compare himself to is singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, with whom he has shared the screen in two films. Both artists have spent years trying to carve out a niche for themselves and both are a welcome presence to the eyes and ears.
Dwight Yoakam is scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 30, during McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 at Margaret T. Hance Park.