A Conversation With Dwight Yoakam
The country legend reveals the inspirations behind his latest album, '3 Pears.'
Photography: Courtesy Randee St Nicholas
Cowboys & Indians: You waited several years to put out a new album ...
Dwight Yoakam: I didn’t really wait. It just happened that there was a long back-and-forth with the label, so that delayed things. But I’m glad it did. I’m always writing. I ended up writing the title track, “3 Pears,” and another, “Waterfall,” after I’d started recording, and they bumped a couple of the other songs off.
C&I: Those are among the most unique songs on the album, lyrics-wise. “3 Pears” was inspired by John Lennon, correct?
Yoakam: In the George Harrison documentary from last year [George Harrison: Living in the Material World], there’s this weird bit of footage of Lennon in the ’70s with three pairs of wire-rimmed glasses on. It was in the height of John’s mod period, and he had these movie-star, big ol’ wraparound Persol sunglasses. There were three pair, one on his forehead, one above his eyebrows, and one at his nose. And he would look at somebody through all three pair. And I was thinking about what a tragedy it was that the world lost John Lennon. And I said, “Yep, three pairs of glasses, huh John?”
Weirdly, it’s like he was telling me there was a song for me to write. So I went to my kitchen, pulled out a scratch pad, and jotted down the initial chorus: “Three pairs of glasses, three pairs of shades / Three pairs of other things, all there in spades.” There was certainly an homage paid to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” — that kind of John Lennon frivolity or chicanery. I hope my song expresses, more than anything, a wish for happiness. That’s the lesson from John to me.
C&I: In your mind, does “Waterfall” also have that balance of frivolity and a message?
Yoakam: I picked up a little guitar that I hadn’t played in several years ... an auditorium model. Very small. I had a capo and started strumming, and went, This makes me want to sing, “If I had a waterfall ... ” and the song started writing itself. I shot back upstairs, got a recorder. But it had the spirit of, and a need — for me, personally — to hear about moving from the innocent knowingness of childhood to the will of adulthood. ... I think we’re all born knowing things that we’re taught to forget. And, again, the verses of “Waterfall” are like a child’s willingness to embrace the nonsense truth of the universe.
C&I: There are two other songs that the respected musical artist Beck co-produced. How did those inform the rest of the record?
Yoakam: The approach Beck took with me was, “OK, just play it and we’ll start recording.” And later I said, “OK, well, my electric guitar playing was just a scratch track, and we’ll probably get somebody else on that.” He said, “I don’t think so. It won’t sound like that.” So I said to myself, when you’ve got someone in the room who’s channeling David Bowie, [Bread singer] David Gates, and Jim Morrison, and he looks at you and says your guitar part is pretty cool, you say, “OK, Beck. You’re robbing this train. Let’s go.” I say that with great respect for him and reverence. I was familiar with “Loser,” one of his first tracks from years ago. It’s still my favorite song. He’s the consummate shape-shifting artist. And how about the newest album he’s releasing on sheet music only? He told me about that, and I said, “Dude, you are so gonzo.” [Laughs.] I admire his musical acumen and intellectual sense of the world.
C&I: How’d you two start working together?
Yoakam: In late 2010, he came over and we talked for a few hours. And before I saw him next, I conceived the song “A Heart Like Mine.” I told him I wanted to do a two-beat, “Bad Moon Rising” kind of bounce. He had his assistant engineer play a drum beat. I said, “There you go!” And we went from there.
C&I: Another collaborator is Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe, who cowrote your soulful new tune “It’s Never Alright.” Tell us about that.
Yoakam: She came in with the opening line and an idea, and I said, “What if, instead of ascending with the melody, we descended? Would you allow me that?” And she said, “Sure!” And she started typing, and we were off to the races. It led us down a different pathway, to a bluesier moment. It shifted the emotion of the song for both of us. We had it done within a couple of hours.
C&I: Still got the acting bug?
Yoakam: There are a couple of things in the process of evolving, but my focus right now is the album. Once that moves forward, we’ll look at acting opportunities. The things I have going on already are not at the stage to be able to talk about it. I was supposed to do The Lone Ranger, but the schedule was shifted a lot, and the way it was pushed, I couldn’t do it because I was doing the album.
C&I: So we may see another album come up faster than this one did?
Yoakam: There’s a lot of music I didn’t finish that I intended to record. It may eventually lead to something else.
Keep up with Dwight Yoakam's touring schedule here.