Dwight Yoakam's busy summer: new movie, new album

Monday, June 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Tough guy, that Dwight Yoakam. A car crash and a gunfight, and the worst thing that happened to him was four stitches in his index finger.

The bent metal and gunplay were stunts in ``Hollywood Homicide,'' his new movie with Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett.

But the stitches, they were real.

``At the end of a car crash and gun battle with Harrison and Josh I got hooked around the arm by an extra and fell into a steel pedestrian barricade on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater,'' Yoakam said.

The finger is fine now, and so is Yoakam. This month is a big one for him _ the movie came out June 13 and his new album, ``Population Me,'' will be released Tuesday.

Relaxed in a pink Western shirt with a flower print, Yoakam, 46, seems neither the guitar-slinging cowpunk in torn jeans and cowboy hat on the concert stage nor the creepy bad guy he played in the films ``Sling Blade'' and ``Panic Room.''

What he is, for sure, is slow as molasses. Reflective and articulate, he ponders each question and answers with long pauses as he searches for just the right words. Sometimes his humor shines through.

Does he play another bad guy in ``Hollywood Homicide''?

``I'm a bad guy again _ but I dress better.''

How does making movies compare with making music?

``Films are miracles in no minor way when they come to fruition at all.''

Is it hard to lead a private life?

``I used to be able to get away with being anonymous by not wearing my cowboy hat, but that's less the case in the last five years.''

The new album could make it harder still. The first single, ``The Back of Your Hand,'' is an understated ballad that's drawing good reviews and early airplay. The video for the song made No. 17 on Country Music Television's Top 20 list for June 12.

``He's such an immediately recognizable icon of country music,'' said Chris Parr, vice president of music and talent at CMT. ``Our early indicators are that our audience is still as interested in him as they've ever been.''

Produced by longtime collaborator and guitarist Pete Anderson, ``Population Me'' is on Electrodisc Records, an independent label Yoakam formed after leaving Warner Brothers' Reprise Records last year.

Yoakam wrote seven of the 10 tracks, including the Willie Nelson duet ``If Teardrops Were Diamonds,'' the shuffling ``No Such Thing'' and the buoyant ``An Exception to the Rule.''

Most engaging, though, might be ``The Late Great Golden State,'' a song written by Mike Stinson that smacks of '70s California rock by artists such as the Eagles and Jackson Browne. It contains a bouncy banjo riff, sunny harmonies and lyrics that lament the loss of West Coast optimism.

Yoakam sings, ``I caught one last glimpse of a palomino, When I drove out West to see the purple sage, Then as the canyons burned, And the mountains crumbled, The last cowboy band left the stage.''

The song fits him. No other contemporary country singer is so closely linked with that dusty Western Bakersfield Sound made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. With sharp electric guitars and twangy vocals, the style countered the lush, polished country Nashville Sound of the '60s.

Yoakam struck that same raw chord 20 years later when country was again deep into pop.

``Before Dwight came along in the mid '80s, people like Lee Greenwood and T.G. Sheppard were popular _ artists who were light on twang,'' said Michael Gray, associate editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. ``Then Dwight comes along proudly flaunting his hillbilly credentials and championing Buck Owens and Johnny Horton. It was like a breath of fresh hillbilly air.''

Kentucky-born and Ohio-bred, Yoakam tried to launch his career from Nashville in the '70s. Unsuccessful, he headed to Los Angeles and played in clubs with punk rock acts such as X and the Dead Kennedys.

With his James Dean swagger and punk credentials, he made country more accessible to rock audiences while at the same time renewing interest in the genre's honky-tonk roots.

``I think he inspired a generation of kids who grew up on MTV not only to buy his records but to discover Buck Owens,'' Gray said. ``It was like what Eric Clapton did with Muddy Waters in the '60s.''

Since his 1986 big-label debut, ``Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.,'' Yoakam has sold 22 million albums. His hits include ``Guitars, Cadillacs,'' ``Little Sister,'' ``Streets of Bakersfield'' (a remake of the Owens classic), ``A Thousand Miles From Nowhere'' and ``Fast as You.''

Compared with active country legends such as 70-somethings Willie Nelson and George Jones, he remains a relative youngster. But Yoakam has been around long enough to know success can dry up and blow away like a tumbleweed.

``Knock wood, I hope to be able to continue to sell records and have them received well by the public,'' he said. ``But if that doesn't happen, I've had a wonderful run of things.''