The honky-tonkin' rocker's first new songs in seven years draw inspiration from sources past and present
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
Dwight Yoakam (©Warner Music Nashville)
More than 30 years after his death, John Lennon had a hand in creating Dwight Yoakam's new album -- or so the singer-songwriter believes. As the Grammy winner sat in his Los Angeles kitchen watching the Beatle in Martin Scorsese's documentary, "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," Yoakam felt an urge to write "3 Pears," the title track.
"That song, to me, is a gift from John Lennon. ... He gave me a love note I get to give to everybody," Yoakam says, choking up as he recounts the moment. An image in the Scorsese film showing Lennon wearing three pairs of glasses at once conjured up the uplifting song in Yoakam. "'Three pairs of glasses, three pairs of shades,'" he says, quoting the opening line. "I went, 'Wait a minute. He doesn't know me, but maybe he's given me a song.' I started writing fairly quickly. It was writing itself."
"3 Pears" is his first set of original songs in seven years. Yoakam, who burst to stardom during the mid-'80s neo-honky-tonk movement, produced the bulk of "3 Pears" himself but got an early assist from Beck, who helmed the haunting "Missing Heart" and the stomping "A Heart Like Mine." "Beck is the reason that I went forward with this," Yoakam says. "I had the inclination to do it. [The] first track was an outgrowth of Beck saying, 'I'd like to co-produce the album with you.'" Beck also helped persuade Yoakam, better known for his acoustic guitar playing, to keep his spirited electric guitar work on the tracks. "I'm not comparing myself to his artistry, but I have about as much business as Bob Dylan playing electric guitar," Yoakam laughs. "Beck said, 'I can call five different guys who can come in and play circles around the notes, but it will not be what we're listening to right now.' ... I said 'OK.'"
Yoakam also got a boost from Bob Ritchie, aka Kid Rock, on the soaring "Take Hold of My Hand." The two co-wrote the song based on a fragment Yoakam penned decades ago. Yoakam estimates he has around 300 partially finished songs stored in four tubs in his attic. "His enthusiasm for music is contagious," Yoakam says. "The Kid Rock world is really about reckless abandon and musical joy. Within [an] hour and a half, we had it basically tuned up. I went home and I went, 'There you go. It was worth holding onto for 20 years.'"
Like Kid Rock, Yoakam has not only an unbridled enthusiasm for, but a vast knowledge of, the music that has come before him. Long after the 30 minutes originally allotted for the interview have passed -- and before he's answered the first question about "3 Pears" -- Yoakam has passionately plugged and relayed some choice anecdotes from Geoff Emerick's "Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles," as well as Keith Richards' memoir, "Life." He's also dissected the classic album labels on a set of drink coasters kept in a drawer in the conference room in his manager's West Hollywood office, lovingly referencing each title.
Many of his diverse influences, from the Beach Boys to Elvis Presley, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, can be heard on the songs on "3 Pears," which easily slide between rockabilly, country, pop and soul, and are all united by Yoakam's distinctive vocal twang and yelp.
Surrounding the jangling guitars and often edgy, bright production are some of Yoakam's first love songs, many of which express vulnerable sentiments that Yoakam says he couldn't have written when he was younger. "The pain's too immediate at 30. Perspective is everything. What should matter is that we loved at all," he says. He adds that listeners shouldn't take the lyrics too literally: "None of the songwriting that I've ever really done, I think in my entire career, is a diary-like chronicling of the specifics of my life." Instead, he paints broader pictures and also draws upon his observational powers: "To listen to others is the job of a songwriter."
In addition to the originals, the deluxe version of "3 Pears" includes an amped-up version of "Ring of Fire" that sounds like a cross between Johnny Cash and T. Rex, and a soulful, propulsive take on the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." "We've been playing [the latter] live for the past two years because it was one of my favorites," Yoakam says. "I said if we're going to record this, I've got to figure out a way to put a fingerprint on it. I don't want to just re-record a lesser version of the great version they did. We came up with a dangerous, insistent rock 'n' roll guitar attack and there's a kind of kooky treatment that we did with the background [vocals]."
For Yoakam, who has a recurring role on FX's "Wilfred" and has starred in such movies as "Sling Blade" and "Panic Room," playing live remains a singular joy. "Look, the act of getting to and from places is always tough and tedious," he says. "But the hour and a half to two hours that we spend on stage is nothing but a sandbox of fun for myself and the band."
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets.