The Music of Dwight Yoakam, Honky Tonk Man [1981-1989]


Easily one of HERC's Top 5 All-Time Favorite musical artists, Kentucky thoroughbred Dwight Yoakam had been involved with music and drama during his high school years and even played with a few garage bands in Columbus, Ohio, before striking out towards The City of Angels, where the stars fall from the skies, in 1977.  His band Kentucky Bourbon played an authentic, rootsy style of honky-tonk and hillbilly music and found an audience in the local bars and clubs, alongside punk and rock.

By 1981, Dwight had made a few connections and began recording demos (playlist above) with a band of talented veterans. Demos in hand, he made the journey to Nashville where he was met with indifference.  At the time, the polished country pop from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack was the rising trend in country music and country radio is nothing if not trendy.  Dwight returned to California and playing with Kentucky Bourbon until he was introduced to Pete Anderson - the two hit it off immediately and began gigging.  They formed a new band, christened them the Babylonian Cowboys and, in 1984, polished up some of Dwight's earlier demos and released a self-financed six-song EP, Guitars, Cadillac, Etc. Etc. (below).  


Featuring five original songs by Dwight and a burning cover of the classic "Ring Of Fire", the EP was critically well-received and the Babylonian Cowboys live performances drew rave reviews from their fellow musicians.  Tracks from the EP began appearing on college radio and the Babylonian Cowboys left Los Angeles opening shows for roots-rockers the Blasters and Los Lobos.  Riding the wave of acclaim, Dwight signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1985 and was assigned to the recently reactivated Reprise label.  Shrewdly stipulating that the previously-released EP tracks be included on his first album and that pardner Pete again produce, the Babylonian Cowboys entered the studio. 

For their debut single in January 1986, Dwight and the Cowboys released a cover version of Johnny Horton's own 1956 debut single "Honky Tonk Man"  Whereas Horton peaked at #9 on the Hot Country Singles chart in 1956 and then at #11 in 1962 when it was re-released, Dwight's rockin' rendition topped out at #3 in the U.S. while topping the Canadian RPM Country Tracks chart.  The music video for the song (above) is widely acknowledged as MTV's first-played Country music video and introduced the world to Dwight's unique brand of tight jean wearin', knee knockin', leg twistin' stage shufflin'.

The second single from the album was the original title track - which oddly enough wasn't written until after the EP was recorded - as seen in an early live version above.  Released in June 1986, "Guitars, Cadillacs" peaked just behind the previous single's benchmark at #4.  The third and final single from the album was "It Won't Hurt", the sad, drinking song (below) that had opened the 1984 EP.  The slow song made it to #31 when it was released shortly after the album in November 1986.  With three Country Top 40 singles, the album managed to hit #1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and even dented the mainstream Top 200 at #61.

HERC first laid ears on Dwight's music on a late Summer 1986 cruise in a friend's Z-28.  The friend had purchased the Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc. cassette earlier that day after seeing the "Honky Tonk Man" video on MTV and picked up HERC after work that night in his 8 MPG(!!!) powder blue beastie and they hit the main drag in town, where they made a few laps while blasting Dwight for the whole half hour and change the cassette lasted, dropping HERC back off at his own car as "Honky Tonk Man"  finished playing a second time.  HERC woke up the next morning and drove down to the record store (Hollywood Records and Tapes) and bought his own vinyl copy and has been buying Dwight's music ever since.  Sadly, HERC's friend passed unexpectedly a few years back.


Barely three months after "It Won't Hurt" was released, Dwight released the first single from his second album, a cover version of Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" in February 1987.  The song peaked at #7.  The second single released from Hillbilly Deluxe was the original "Little Ways" (below).  Released in June 1987, it peaked at #8 in the States and became Dwight's second chart-topper in Canada, and was immediately followed by the release of the album in July 1987.


Hillbilly Deluxe topped the Country albums chart and landed at #55 on the Top 200.  The third single extracted from the album was the pleading "Please, Please Baby" which hit #6 in November 1987.  Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses" was the fourth and final single from Hillbilly Deluxe.  The single peaked just inside the Top 10 at #9 on the Country Singles chart.  Lefty's original was a #1 smash in 1951.

In June 1988, "Please, Please Baby" showed up as the b-side to Dwight's next single, a duet with his hero, the legendary Buck Owens, who briefly came out of retirement following the single's success.  Featuring the rollicking Zydeco accordion of Flaco Jiminez, "Streets Of Bakersfield" became Yoakam's first #1 on the Country Singles chart.  The song was originally recorded by Buck and his Buckaroos in the early Seventies.


Dwight's third album was released in August 1988 and became his third consecutive #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart in as many years.  Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room featured eleven tracks and in addition to "Streets Of Bakersfield", three more singles would be released from the record.  HERC's favorite Yoakam disc up to that point also featured three more cover versions:
  • Johnny Cash's 1957 #3 hit "Home Of The Blues"
  • J.D. Miller's "I Hear You Knockin'"
  • Hank Locklin's 1958 Top 5 hit "Send Me The Pillow", a duet with Trisha Yearwood

The mournful "I Sang Dixie" was one of the demos recorded in 1981. Re-cut with the Babylonian Cowboys and produced by lead guitarist Pete Anderson (as all of his previous singles had been) it became Dwight's second consecutive Number One single shortly after its release in October 1988.  The album's opening cut - "I Got You" - went Top 5 when it was released as a single in February 1989.

The album's title track was the fourth and final single released in the Spring of 1989.  "Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses)" is the slow burning tale of a double homicide committed by a tortured, jealous soul.  Perhaps the dark subject matter resulted in the song being the lowest charting single thus far in his career, barely missing the Top 60.

Collecting eight of his first ten singles, Just Lookin' For A Hit was Yoakam's first hits compilation and a brief summary of his recorded output in the Eighties.  Two newly recorded cover versions also appeared on the album, which became his largest selling album up to that time:  "Long White Cadillac" (originally by The Blasters), the only single released from the album, peaking at #35 and a duet with k.d. lang on "Sin City" (originally by The Flying Burrito Brothers).  A same-titled VHS tape of all six music videos  Dwight had filmed in the Eighties and brief interviews with Dwight was released simultaneously.

The playlist below contains HERC's favorite songs from Dwight Yoakam's first four albums.  Stay tuned for the next part of Dwight's career, the Nineties.

No comments:

Post a Comment