Dwight Yoakam Turns ’3 Pears’ Into Rich Musical Buffet
Of the many artists whose influence permeates Dwight Yoakam‘s brilliant new album, 3 Pears — his first in seven years and his return to longtime label Warner Music Nashville — one who isn’t mentioned but perhaps should be is Frank Sinatra. Not because the honky-tonk troubadour and the iconic crooner populate the same musical landscape, or because Sinatra founded the Warner Bros. division, Reprise Records, for which Dwight recorded many of his best-known hits and top-selling albums. No, it’s simply because when Dwight returned to the Warner fold for his first album since the 2005 indie release, Blame the Vain, he says the powers-that-be [cue cheesy music] “allowed me to do it my way.” His way included being free not only to tread the familiar ground of a hard-charging honky-tonk classic (“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”) but also to experiment with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and to collaborate with the likes of Beck and Kid Rock. The Boot sat down with Dwight at a private table in a Nashville hotel, plates stacked with all varieties of fruit within reach, as the singer-songwriter, who had doffed his cowboy hat but was clearly wearing his thinking cap, munched on blueberries and ruminated on the songs that shaped this delectable collection.
Now that you’re looking back at it and talking about the record for the first time, what are you feeling about it? And how is it different from the way you made records in the past?
[It's] beginning to feel like a child I had somewhere along the way. This one is its own journey. It mirrors a lot of life for me. It really was different in every way. From how I first began recording with Beck on the two tracks that he co-produced ["A Heart Like Mine" and "Missing Heart"] and the template that kind of established for me in my own process of how I was going to go forward recording the rest of the record. It literally was me with an electric guitar and acoustic guitar and Beck’s assistant engineer playing drums and his engineer playing bass. Beck being the objective encourager to move forward on the path with that track. I put what I thought was the scratch electric guitar track on it and he said, “I don’t know, I think we keep that and put another one on top of it.” We built the thing in a very organic way, a spontaneous way which is what pure musical expression is really about.
In terms of pure musical expression, let’s start with “Waterfall” because after one listen, it would seem there’s a lot to talk about there!
I happened to pick up a guitar out of my guitar closet. I was talking to my girlfriend and was showing her this little three-quarter Gibson Auditorium model guitar. She plays guitar and she said, “Is there a guitar that I should play or not touch?” I said, “This is a cool guitar.” I hadn’t pulled it out in a long time. I was tuning and twanging around with it. Ironically, the end of the story is I didn’t use that guitar on the song at all when I was recording it. But I began strumming and teasing her as I started singing this thing that came into my head because of the sound of that guitar, which was, “If I had a waterfall, we wouldn’t wonder, not at all … “
Well, I wondered, because I was going to ask what you were on when you came up with those lyrics?
[Laughs] I was on the spontaneity of the moment in real life, which is what John Lennon always refers to — what goes on when we’re making other plans — it was unplanned, you see. Thank goodness for the iPhone digital recorder. I’ve used that to capture probably most of every song on this album. [sings the song lyrics] “If I had a jellyfish, I bet you we would never miss a single peanut butter kiss or squeeze.” There was a feeling in the sense of freedom about being that innocent with a song and being that untethered to a plan.
A song like that brings to mind so many cool visual things. Do you write in a visual way or do you just let the words spill out?
It depends on the song, it depends on the moment. That one just spilled out. But with the opening line there’s a visualization of this physical environment of a waterfall somewhere … a mountaintop. Then I got to that third stanza, “If I had a jellyfish,” and it was just the absurdity of movement to this other, more absurd place. Then it came back to the sublimely absurd. “Bet you we would never miss a single peanut butter kiss or squeeze,” and I was able to look up and wink [at my girlfriend] at that moment. There was a bit of channeling Roger Miller. There’s a menagerie of wonderful things to take a journey with just floating by. A giraffe that floats by. It was a freedom and a moment to be childlike. Then there’s “babies get born even in a war.” That doesn’t lead in a linear way from the nonsensical playfulness. It takes a more sobering turn. Maybe that is, in fact, the message of life. That life goes on while you’re making other plans. Babies get born even in a war. At the time I was writing it, Libya was in the throes of the end. Syria, I happened to catch out of the corner of my eye today, they said 240 people were found dead in Damascus and 77 people were killed today so far. There is a tragic crescendo that’ll bring this to a stop, I think. I was thinking even then that in the midst of all that is awful and wrong, what’s right happens. Somebody said there are a lot of one-syllable lyrics in the songs. I said, “Yeah, simple’s not easy to arrive at.” [laughs]
This is your first studio album for Warner Bros. since 2000. I assume you feel like they are behind you in terms of the type of music you choose to make?
Warner has a legacy of that — that unique willingness of not only allowing but to encourage artistic exploration and evolution. Lenny [Waronker, the album's executive producer] is the embodiment of that going back to Van Dyke Parks, who he championed, and Ry Cooder and Randy Newman. Lenny met me in LA in 1986 at this record release party we had at the Roxy Theater and said, “You do what your instinct tells you. If anyone tells you to do anything that’s against your instinct, don’t listen to them and don’t do it.” He said, “The things that I’m the proudest of having done at this label don’t always involve commercial success. I’m as proud of every Randy Newman record and every Ry Cooder record I’ve made as of every Fleetwood Mac record.”
Although this is certainly a country record and will appeal to country fans, something that didn’t really exist back then that could be advantageous for you now is the Americana format.
I think it did then, just under a different nomenclature. Wherever they’re willing to listen to what music I make, I’ll be grateful for an audience. Musicians exist independent of any of the marketing terms or the categorization. I understand the need for it, in terms of the mechanics. When I listen to XM radio, I’m looking at categories and then guiding myself through that. It’s just the nature of us as beings at organizing thought, organizing expression. But with musicians, we live transcending all boundaries of category. Beck is an example of that, or Kid Rock.
You wrote “Take Hold of My Hand,” the first track on the album, with Kid Rock, how did the song come about?
It had been languishing for about 19 years as an unfinished chorus/verse. He and I have been threatening to do something for years and I went out to place in LA one night and hung out about three hours. He beat it out of me. His kinetic energy can be a driving force to seeing something through. His level of excitement, enthusiasm was the thing that got the song finished after 19 years. I was sitting at a console desk and he had a computer he was typing at. He’d throw out a lyric and I’d throw out another lyric and bounce that one off him. My energy would have been hovering or rotating, maybe … counterclockwise. He was in this very linear, pacing energy. He’d walk back and forth and go outside smoking a cigar and come charging back in. There was this energy of charging ahead, moving forward, moving out ahead while I was in this revolving space. It was because of that charging ahead that it went to its conclusion that evening.
And how did you end up collaborating with Beck?
I just had an instinct to call him. I was familiar with mostly the louder moments, like “Loser.” Odelay had “Devil’s Haircut” and I then explored other stuff. I knew about his inclinations to other genres of music and wondered if he was producing. So we talked, he came to the office and I sat with him for about three hours, looking over LA, in my office in Hollywood. We talked about the culture and I played a bunch of things for him. I could see his visceral connection to music.
Yes. She had the thought for it and had the opening line, [sings] “It’s never alright” but she had more of an ascending melody. I said, “Would you allow me [sings the melody the way it is on the record]. It’s a little bluesier that way. It shifted the tone … and gave it a more melancholy texture.
How long did it take to write that one?
I guess about three hours.
Interesting, that’s the third time you’ve mentioned working in a three-hour period with someone.
That’s about all two people can tolerate, I think, wrestling an idea back and forth. Then there is a mop-up later, where you go back and touch up lyrics. I e-mailed her a line that I had changed slightly. Funny enough, Beck’s dad, David Campbell, arranged the strings and horns on that.
It was a little bit of an homage to both. I said to Lenny, I’m turning back and waving to all the things you guys were doing 1968-71. There was a certain freedom in that. We had already cut the electric track on a previous session. So, that was done. I said it that way, what if I said it this way? Maybe the light changes just before the sun sets in the song and it’s now more fuchsia and amber.
Your cover of “To Love Somebody,” which is available as a bonus track, is really very touching. Was it Robin Gibb‘s recent death that made you decide to release that?
Thank you. We’d been doing that for about a year-and-a-half in the live show. We would just occasionally do it just because I thought that song was wonderfully rich and emotional. It was very simple. As fate would have it, we had already planned on cutting it when Robin passed. Hopefully it’s a version that does justice to its original emotional intent.
Watch Dwight Yoakam Perform ‘Waterfall’