Q&A WITH DWIGHT YOAKAM
FOR HIS ‘UNDER THE COVERS’ ALBUM
Q: This album is like a juke-box from your soul. What was the original inspiration for the album?
DWIGHT: Well, initially it was an outgrowth of a performance we gave in the summer of ’95, a live radio broadcast from the studios at Capitol Records. We happened to do three or four cover songs in that broadcast and the response to that was universally pretty strong. Then Pete and I had talked about doing a cover album for a couple of years. We thought it might be fun to do an album that explored songs we had performed in night clubs over the years, early on in our performing career. We also wanted to cover songs that we never played but ones we had been fans of.
Q: What was the criteria for the songs that actually made it onto the album? Just to isolate one song, the Clash’s “Train In Vain” gets recast in a blue-grass setting.
DWIGHT: It’s a twist on a song and a twist on bluegrass. It’s not truly a pure bluegrass performance because we’ve added accordion and drums. Ralph Stanley is playing banjo and singing harmony with me. In the spirit of the album, it is a hybrid kind of bluegrass performance of a song that I’ve always admired. I loved that melody line when I originally heard The Clash do it years before. I always carried it around in my hip pocket as a song that I thought I might cover some day. And this was my opportunity. In fact, it was originally an unlisted track on the Clash’s album, London Calling. I had to go hunt and figure out, “what’s that song?”
Q: Wasn’t “La Croix D’Amour” (a 1992 European-only release) also a catalyst for this album?
DWIGHT: Yeah. That was an earlier collection of songs that we released in Europe at the suggestion of a couple of the heads of the European record division who felt they wanted to hear, almost exclusively, things that we had done that were up-tempo. And when we began to explore putting an album together like that for Europe, we went and covered “Here Comes The Night,” by Them and the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today.” For this album, we remixed “Things We Said Today” with a live drum track that was not originally on the “La Croix D’Amour” album. The whole track as it is presented on this album is a remix, top to bottom, with the addition of the new drum track.
Q: Maybe you could describe the freedom that you went into this project with because there are no borders here.
DWIGHT: I think one of the great examples of feeling that we were not prisoners of any kind of genre perimeters is “Good Time Charlie.” When we recorded it, I felt it was only going to be a part of the album if I had somehow achieved a performance that was my own–in terms of leaving a fingerprint on the song without compromising the material in any way. Once we had cut the track and I started singing it, I couldn’t bring myself to just do the melody the way that Danny O’Keefe had performed it because it was done so well that I didn’t feel it did justice to mimic the previous performance. The words of the song, I think, are so profoundly well-written and poignant that I just let myself open up to going to where I felt the emotions of the song were at the moment I began singing the first verse. I was alone in the studio, Pete was in the studio office and our engineer, Michael Dumas, was in the control room at Mad Dog. This was the first collection of work that we had recorded at the new Mad Dog Studios in Burbank. I just turned the lights off in the studio–a very dim light came in from the control room–and I knew the verse so well that I didn’t need the light on the music stand for the lyrics. I just let myself drift into another place. I’d been listening to Chet Baker sing in the previous six months off and on. Something in his vocal approach, combined with just the lyrical content of this song, siezed me, and I began to explore other places melodically with the verses. There’s a melancholy to the situation and circumstances he describes that is so succinctly extreme that it made me want to curl up, figuratively, in an emotional fetal position as I began performing the melody, which is what I was probably attempting to do by restricting the intervals I sang in each verse, sort of withdrawing into the dark blueness of the lyrics, so-to-speak. I hope Danny O’Keefe enjoys my interpretation of it. I’m such a fan of his own reading of the song, and thought the original recording was such a perfect expression of those emotions, that I felt it was almost untouchable.”
Q: What’s interesting about the record is the inclusion of “Baby Don’t Go.” Some people think Sonny and Cher are a kitschy footnote in musical history. What was your attraction to the song?
DWIGHT: Pete Anderson and I had both, at different times, heard the song just driving in a car. We were on the phone with each other, one day, immediately after I had heard it and I said, “Remember that shuffle Sonny and Cher did?” We both felt it was a well-written song and had always liked it. When this project came up, I suggested we do it and that we do it as a duet. We cut it without having a duet partner set. I had actually suggested a couple of people and one of them was in fact Sheryl. I had seen her perform on the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame inaugural for the museum in Cleveland. She came out and sat in with about five different acts. And each time that she sat in with somebody, the level of musical quality of their performance rose by a couple of notches. I mentioned her to Pete then, not knowing Sheryl, not having met her, only being aware of a performance I’d seen her give in ’94 in Dallas. I was filming a movie and I happened to go see a show with Blues Traveler and she was part of the bill, touring with her first single. I was impressed with that live performance and the earnest kind of abandon that she approached her performance with. So the seed was planted there. I bumped into Sheryl this year at the Grammys. Pete and I had not had anyone perform on the track at that point yet, and she and I happened to discuss performing together at some point. I got back home and thought about that. I talked to Pete and I called Sheryl, and she agreed to do it. I was extremely flattered. She brought a reading to it that was unique. She’s singing in a lower register and there’s a sultriness to that performance that has a great charisma. When I heard it, I was reminded of a combination of Mavis Staples and Bonnie Bramlett during the answer/call thing at the end. I was really mesmerized by her performance.
Q: Moving ahead to “Tired Of Waiting.” It has a “Mack The Knife feel to it. So how did you ever wind up in this musical setting?
DWIGHT: We arrived at that place via a couple different avenues. I had decided this album might present an opportunity to take a Bobby Darren sort of journey. I told Pete I think I want to do a big band track, a swing track, on this album. I had a desire to perform a song in that genre. We began to explore different material and I’d even thought of covering a Louie Prima version of “Up A Lazy River,” which is cast originally in that musical context. And then we started to look at other material that was originally performed in another context and Pete called me and left a message really excited about covering the Kinks’ “Tired Of Waiting.” He said “Remember the Kinks’ song “Tired Of Waiting?” I said yeah. He said, “That’s the song we should cover with the big band!” I shook my head and my brain rattled around like the cowbells on Red Skelton’s show. I really couldn’t even fathom that. I said “Well, let’s try that in rehearsal.” So we got together and we were rehearsing everything with the band without the horn section, just with the rhythm section. The moment I began to sing it in that swing mode, Pete and I looked at each other and knew it would work and knew it would work almost absurdly well. And by that, I mean, I couldn’t get through the first verse without the band and myself just breaking up at the simultaneous absurdity of what we were about to do with the song: one, we were covering the Kinks; two, we were covering the Kinks in a big band swing version; and three, here I am singing this Kinks cover in a Darrenesque kind of context. This album grew from a desire to knock down any parameters and preconceived notions about what we were able to do as performers, the band and myself. We explored music in its purest sense, for the joy to be found in all of it’s emotional expressions.
Q: It’s so smooth. And speaking of smooth, so is “Claudette,” which opens the record. What led you to that one?
DWIGHT: We had actually performed “Claudette” in the 1989 tribute to Roy Orbison at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles when Barbara Orbison, T. Bone Burnett, Don Was put together a special for HBO. Pete and I kept it in our minds, in our mental hip pocket, as a song that we might want to consider to record someday. It was a song that, although Roy wrote it, he had never released as a single. The version that’s known by its radio play is the Everly Brothers’ version. It’s also so expressive of the kind of musical legacy that I come from, which includes The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, two of the major musical influences in my life. So here’s a song that was written by one, Roy, and performed by and identified with the other act, The Everlys. I wanted to weld both together in my own kind of expression of what I heard coming from those two artists as a child. They both had a profound influence on how I sing, The Everlys and Roy. Roy and I were able to talk about that, on a plane one Sunday morning. I’ll never forget that. It was the first time I met him. I was on my way to Nashville to receive a gold album for Guitars & Cadillacs–it was in the fall of ’86 and he and Barbara were sitting behind my manager and me. We began to talk over the backs of the seats. We were airborne and it was just a glorious morning to be in the sky. It was an early morning flight and we broke through clouds, with the sun blasting through the windows of the plane, and I’m able to talk to Roy Orbison for the first time in my life. He had this other-worldly quality anyway, and it was certainly in his singing voice. He leaned up to me at one point and said “Dwight,” and he kind of half whispered it, “Do you feel like your singing voice has a life of its own, like it’s another person?” It was the first time anybody had ever articulated that to me in an open way–something that I had held as a secret and almost something that I had guarded as a secret. I was embarrassed to share those feelings or to bring it up with anybody for fear that they would ridicule me as being at best a lunatic, at worst some sort of narcissistic fool. And to have Roy Orbison, of all people, tell me that the animal that lives within us–our voice–appeared to be less in our control than anybody could imagine and possess a mystery and mystique attached to it that only another person who had to wrestle with that sort of angel/demon that can live inside them would understand. It was a profound moment in my life to share with somebody, and to share it with Roy Orbison was really an overwhelming experience. So in doing this song, I’m able to hopefully share it with him in a musical way. And as well as the Everlys. They have mystical voices. Their tracks and their songs have always held a great fascination for me. One of the early albums I had in my possession was one of theirs. It was a Warner album with a gold picture frame on the cover. The two of them were in these striped Banlon pull-over shirts with these huge–I mean, nuclear–pompadours. I was captivated by the visual as well as the musical aesthetics of both acts. Roy and the Everlys are part of the legacy from which I hail personally and part of the cultural legacy that gave birth to what I do musically.
Q: What about “Playboy,” the Wynn Stewart song? Is Wynn Stewart also the person who popularized it?
DWIGHT: Yeah. Wynn Stewart had the only radio hit that I know of on the song. I don’t know if Buck Owens ever covered it or not. Wynn Stewart was a Capitol recording artist in the ’50’s and Merle Haggard performed in his band on bass. Wynn Stewart was a West Coast country artist. I don’t know if Buck produced or Wynn Stewart did, but Buck may have been instrumental in getting him signed to Capitol. “Wishful Thinking” was another great Wynn Stewart song. But “Playboy” had always appealed to me. I’d never performed it in public. I’d bring it up from time to time as an illustration of that Bakersfield sound in conversations and in interviews over the years. I used to sing it around the house. I love Wynn’s vocal style and his recording of it.
Q: “Wichita Lineman.” This is another great moment on the album. It is so hybrid and it jaw-droppingly goes through so many styles within seconds. Tell us a little about what went into this song.
DWIGHT: It was originally an outgrowth of a conversation that came up with some folks that were involved in a film project–they were toying with the idea of using that song as a closing track and asked if we would ever consider cutting it. When that didn’t happen, we went in on our own because the idea so captured my imagination. I was such a huge fan of the song and had not thought about it in a couple of years. When it came up, I was at the studio finishing my Christmas album. We were standing in the control room and I had this conversation with this person. I was relaying the conversation to Pete and I began to sing it a cappella. We both started to smile because we realized I had never explored that kind of vocal range on record. Jimmy Webb wrote some brilliant songs and this is certainly on par with the best that he ever wrote. I know everyone alludes to “MacArthur Park” as being his great triumph, but lyrically, I’m hesitant to exclude “Wichita Lineman” from that same level of genius. Having said that, when Pete and I and the band sat down and actually decided to record it, the use of it in the film was no longer an issue. We were doing it really for the purpose of embellishing the covers album and adding it as a track that we now felt excited about creatively. We didn’t want to do the song if, again, we couldn’t explore a unique interpretation of it–an interpretation that would do justice to the original creative catalyst for the song and for the writer and at the same time define itself as its own specific performance. And that’s what we were trying to do with every track on the record. Singing the lyrics of this song in the studio was both an exhilarating and eerie experience. There’s such a mystical, other-worldly kind of quality that comes out of the imagery (due in part to the lyrical use of an experience with its extreme juxtaposition of a repairman working on a highline pole while simultaneously communicating telepathically with a lover) that the song seemed to take on a sort of wildly metaphysical importance in my mind as I was singing it. And it is a further example of Webb’s metaphoric expression being so blindly brilliant that his songwriting talent all but defies analysis and description.
Q: If this album tells the story of your own musical legacy, “Here Comes The Night” possesses that loner quality that is so prevalent in your own music. What attracted you to this song?
DWIGHT: Maybe you’re hearing a shy 15-year old kid who found it really tough to approach a girl that he had a huge crush on. Although the lyrics are about a relationship that’s come and gone, it certainly deals with a sense of alienation and isolation that can be an outgrowth of feeling socially inept. So there’s a little of that in the song.
Q: The guitar sparkle on “Here Comes The Night”–there is a comparison there with the shimmering guitars that exist on your own records.
DWIGHT: The fingerprints are still our own on this album. Pete’s solo on “Claudette” is a scalding, white-trash guitar work-out that I hope doesn’t go overlooked. On “Here Comes The Night” there are examples of Pete’s unique stylistic approach to the instrument. Also, we shifted again the rhythm in the verses–it’s almost a bit ska. There is a bit of reggae turn-around on the back beat on the verses. We just explored through our own interpretation of the material.
Q: With “The Last Time,” it’s really interesting that you’ve given a country twist to this song because the middle period Stones would explore country.
DWIGHT: I had talked with Mick Jagger a couple of times about recording together and writing and recording something together. I hope the Rolling Stones will be flattered by our taking it off into a nuclear Merle Travis kind of break-neck mystery train groove. It’s a hybrid also. There’s some Travis picking going on with the lead electric guitar at a pretty volatile tempo. There’s a raging bluegrass tempo to it. What I did with the vocal was perform it in a traditional bluegrass half time fashion. It was fascinating to sing those lyrics with that kind of interpretation applied to it. We had played the song over the years at different times, but had done it in a form that was closer to the original style the Stones had done it in. The Lonesome Strangers sang on it with me. Their vocal style–being post-nuclear Delmore Brothers–added another element.
Q: Your vocal syle on “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles is real notable. Can you reflect on that?
DWIGHT: When I cut that originally for La Croix D’Amour, it was the first real recording, melodically, that was such a severe departure from the blues, rockabilly- based singing that I had done. Even that early inspiration of it was very freeing and allowed me to express myself in a unique way musically. To me, the Beatles’ version seemed to embrace a youthful innocence. I think we were able to interpret it in a darker way and possibly introduced a new emotional mystery to the song. There’s more foreboding in what Pete’s doing in the lead guitar intro.
Q: Why did you cover “North To Alaska” by Johnny Horton?
DWIGHT: It’s a tribute to Johnny Horton. The first hit single I ever had was a cover of the Johnny Horton song, “Honky Tonk Man.” “North To Alaska” was a song that I loved from the time I was a child. I played it for years in the bars when I was receiving my musical education at the hands of dancers and alcoholics. It was something that I thought about recording several times and had just never had the opportunity before this.
Q: What’s in the lyric that’s appealing to you?
DWIGHT: In finding Johnny Horton first as a seven-year-old child listening to my parents’ record collection, I was always fascinated with these images that he created, lyrically, that were absolutely paintings in my mind of places and events and specifically on “North To Alaska.” Even to this day, everytime I sing the line, “One small band of gold to place on sweet Jenny’s hand,” I see pictures. I probably learned about lyrical picture painting– visualization–by listening to him. This is an acknowledgement of that influence.
Q: It’s interesting that your decision to do it tells a story of your own legacy.
DWIGHT: Until we spoke just now, I really hadn’t articulated for myself how profoundly influential he was, along with Johnny Cash, as a songwriting stylist mentor. I knew vocally that as a child I had been infatuated with Johnny Horton’s voice and I’ve referred to that before.
Q: The album ends with that hidden track “T For Texas.” Who originated that song?
DWIGHT: It’s one of Jimmy Rogers’ most famous compositions. A lot of people are unaware that Jimmy Rogers–The Blue Yodeler, The Singing Brakeman, as he was referred to in the late 20’s and early 30’s–wrote that song. He was the first great nationally known country music star. He died tragically of tuberculosis in the early 30’s as his success was on the ascent and acknowledgment of his talent and his ability to transcend cultural boundaries had not been fully realized yet in terms of the enormous fame that would have attached itself to his music and career had he lived.
Q: How did your version differ?
DWIGHT: Of all the songs on this record, that one may be the closest in its musical interpretation to the original. I don’t know that Jimmy did it with much more than a guitar and a vocal. We tend to take it deeper into Mississippi, (although Jimmy was originally from Meridian), than his version, with the kind of Delta blues electric guitar that Pete was playing on the song with me. The way it felt when we got finished, was almost as if we’re hiding ourselves in the performance of the song. It was if Pete and I were on a porch somewhere, way back up in the hills, doing the song together in another lifetime. We cut it live, just sat down and did it warts and all, we didn’t overdub anything. We just sat in the studio one night, and performed it. It was completely spontaneous–I didn’t know when I was going to come in. I didn’t start playing on the first verse, I just dropped in on the acoustic guitar when it felt right to me. I dropped out at the end when I felt like it. It was a joy to do this song with Pete, first in his old single apartment. For a few months I stayed with him and slept on the floor when I had nowhere else to go. We’d sit around and play things like that together. It came full circle in that studio setting. It was spontaneous with me kind of facing him with an acoustic guitar and him sitting with an electric guitar in his hands. That’s how we rehearse most of the material we do on every album. Pete and I initially go over arrangement ideas together. We get together for a arrangement meeting after I’ve written the songs that I think I want to do. He sits in my music study with a Telecaster and a little amp and I sit across from him with my Martin and march through the material and play it down in its most raw, pure form.
Q: It’s interesting how the album opens with “Claudette” and closes with “T For Texas.” In terms of your inspirations and all of your roots, they are two good bookends for this album. In closing, we wanted to note that it’s a real testament to your talent that you are not only exploring your roots but that you’ve come up with something new along the way.
DWIGHT: Thank you. That was the point of this. It’s an exploration and a musical journey that illustrates that music should be and can be completely freeing–it’s nothing that Pete and the band or I find imprisoning. I feel music shouldn’t be marketed in a narrow-cast way. It’s inhibiting to musical growth and exchange.
Q: That’s why a lot of people are turned onto Beck at the moment. He’s melding a lot of different stuff there. People are looking to be freed. That’s what they come to music for in the first place.
DWIGHT: I did. It didn’t matter that my socio-economic background was as a kid–I found an affinity with what I was hearing Herb Albert do, what I heard Johnny Cash do and what I heard Bill Monroe and Elvis do as well as what I heard Dean Martin and the great Bobby Darren do. And Bobby Darren is a great example of that, if we look back at his career at everything from the bobby socks teenage frivolous innocence of “Splish Splash” to where he took it–of course everyone remembers “Mack The Knife.” And there’s also “Beyond The Sea.” The sophistication of it and his performance was just brilliant and I was completely infatuated with it. And then he came out on The Tonight Show–in blue jeans, sandals, hair to his shoulders–and sang with an acoustic guitar “If I Were A Carpenter.” I think every musician should be inspired by that. And throughout it, he maintained the integrity of his emotional voice. He never compromised that. It was perhaps, against his best “career interest.” He never seemed to be a prisoner to any of those parameters. Parameters can be in fact welcome. They can help us find ourselves and they can define musical forms, but they’re not something that should be put upon us as confines. They’re structural support for what I do musically at any given time, but I also have door-ways built into those structures. We should all have those door-ways that allow us to be able to move from room to room.
Q: There is a lot of stuff to discover in the attic.
DWIGHT: There are toys in that attic, as those guys in Aerosmith said all those years ago.