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John Lamb, Published July 28 2013

Country star Dwight Yoakam tough to label

MOORHEAD – Over four decades, music industry folks have struggled with how to label Dwight Yoakam.

A throwback country artist who succinctly introduced himself with his 1986 debut single, “Honky Tonk Man,” the singer/guitarist completely side-stepped Nashville. Instead, he emerged from his adopted home in Los Angeles as part of the cowpunk movement led by Los Lobos, X and The Blasters.

His long, winding road leads him to Moorhead on Tuesday night for a show at the Imagine Amphitheater at Bluestem Center for the Arts in south Moorhead. It will be his first F-M area show since he played the Red River Valley Fair in 2000.

Since he burst onto the national scene nearly 30 years ago, he’s declined to fit nicely into any mold. A sex symbol in the ’80s and ’90s who dated celebrities including Sharon Stone, Bridget Fonda and Karen Duffy, Yoakam played against type as bad guys in “Sling Blade” and “Panic Room”.

Despite living in Hollywood since 1977, Yoakam never sold out his hillbilly roots for a countrypolitan hit. This may be why he’s only won one solo Grammy, best country vocal performance for 1993’s “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” In 1999, he was part of the best country collaboration winner as part of a large ensemble that also featured Merle Haggard, Clint Black, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and many others on the traditional song “Same Old Train.”

After releasing just two albums of original material (and three covers collections) in a decade, Yoakam returned to the spotlight last fall with the release of “3 Pears,” a disc that would top many critics’ year-end best-of lists.

During a break between tours – and sandwiched while driving between meetings – Yoakam talked about his music and his style.

Do you feel like you’re embraced by Nashville?

I’ve certainly had great commercial success with country radio. I was signed to Warner Nashville for 18 years, back for this album (“Three Pears”). Yeah, the music was enabled by the folks at Warner Nashville and the community there. But my entire career has been based out of the cowpunk scene in the early ’80s and the nightclub scene. We broke out of the West Coast neo-honky-tonk scene.

“3 Pears” is a great album, but I have to ask, why was it seven years between original albums?

You know what? That’s a valid question, and I don’t have an answer. (Laughs) I did the Buck album (“Dwight Sings Buck,” a tribute to his friend and idol, the late Buck Owens, who played with Yoakam at WE Fest in 1999) in the interim, and that was almost like a studio project for myself and the band.

Some critics have called “3 Pears” a “comeback.” Do you see it that way?

Hey, good. In spite of not feeling like I’ve ever gone anywhere. But I understand when there’s a period of time when you haven’t put out original recordings … Hey, I’m still happy to be able to come and go. You hope that you can come and go as you choose and not being refused reentry. To me, it feels more like a full circle. It feels closer in proximity to the first EP in the moment, not necessarily in terms of the sonics and material, but there’s a rugged rawness in the approach to this record that reminds me of “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” and the moment that it was embraced by alt radio and college radio and in the case of “Three Pears,” sometimes AAA (adult album alternative) radio.

What was it like playing alongside punk bands like X and The Blasters in Los Angeles and how did that affect your music?

It was just a natural extension of the whole scene. We were all part and parcel of this wonderful moment to listen to music in L.A. in ’81, ’82 and ’83. There was Lone Justice and Rank and File, formerly a punk band called The Dills and you had the Long Ryders. The Plugz, a former punk band became Los Cruzados.

I remember being with Los Lobos in San Francisco and these two clubs, and I did the opening slot at one club and they did the opening at another and then we all got into the vans and drove about four blocks down the road from one another and swapped gigs. It was a very kinetic moment.

There was a moment of generational rebirth of West Coast country music. If you go back to Chris Hillman and his founding of The Byrds … and that led to “country-rock” and the first “country-rock” album, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” (in 1968). … Without Chris Hillman, The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Buffalo Springfield … without him and all that followed, there would be no me in terms of influence.

You were a sex symbol in the ’80s and ’90s, but outside of your music, you’re best known for playing bad guys in “Sling Blade” and “Panic Room.” What do you like about playing bad guys?

As an actor you’re at the mercy of opportunity. In both cases, those happened to be terrifically written films and exceptionally executed movies. I was there to perform the needed role. I enjoyed very much being a part of each of those films. It wasn’t choosing to do a “bad guy,” it was choosing to be a part of that story in that role.

Have you ever thought about doing a musical?

Somebody talked about that a few years ago. I haven’t pursued it very thoroughly. It would have to be the right circumstance.

A big part of your stage presence is your dancing. Where did you get your dance moves and are you a dancer offstage?

No. Whatever I do that is considered dancing is just reactive movement to music, an extension of me as a musician more so than consciously attempt to “dance”. It’s probably more influenced by James Brown, Mick Jagger and maybe Sly Stone than anyone.

You’re always a stylish dresser. Do you ever think, ‘Screw it, today is a sweat pants day’?

Well, I never thought that onstage. I always thought there was an element of theater that had been abandoned to some degree at times. All genres of music are guilty at times of abandoning that theatrical wardrobing. Country music has a great, rich legacy of it and that’s really what I was hearkening back to with the use of the bolero jackets and rhinestone coats.

If you go

• What: Dwight Yoakam with Dale Watson & His Lonestars

• When: Tuesday; gates open at 6 p.m. Show starts at 7 p.m.

• Where: Imagine Amphitheater at Bluestem Center for the Arts, 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead.

• Info: Tickets are $29.50 for general admission lawn seats, $39.50 for general admission bench seats or $59.50 for reserved seats in the concert bowl. (866) 300-8300.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533