Dwight Yoakam is almost an experiment within the music industry. The question: Can a 29-year-old hillbilly singer from Pikesville, Ky., sell the same record to an aging Hank Williams fan, a middle-aged Judds fan and a young John Fogerty fan?
Can his hard-edged honky-tonk band and music bridge the huge chasm Nashville has created in the last decade between country music and younger rock-oriented fans?
"I've got my fingers crossed," Yoakam says. "But I think we can do it."
Indeed, it looks as if he's right. In the few months since the release of his debut album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.," Yoakam has become the most exciting phenomenon to hit Nashville since someone dubbed Willie and Waylon "outlaws" in the '70s. A rash of TV appearances and an avalanche of gushing press have already tagged the lean and handsome Yoakam the "honky-tonk savior" and "the Hank Williams of the '80s."
"Forgive the analogy," Yoakam begins, "but Springsteen had a lot of that stuff thrown at him the first few years. He was the new Dylan, the new Elvis, the future of rock. Some was accurate and some wasn't. What Springsteen did is what every artist has to do -- be yourself and make your music for whatever reasons are important to you."
More important than the critical acclaim is that Yoakam's album and first single, a pounding remake of Johnny Horton's 1956 "Honky Tonk Man," have soared into the top 10 on the country charts. The album's success (it is also in the 60s and climbing on the pop charts) has silenced a lot of the Nashville executives skeptical of the potential of Yoakam's unrepentant honky-tonk to appeal to modern country fans, much less rock fans.
"The companies that didn't believe in us and wouldn't sign us a year ago are shocked," Yoakam says with relish. "They wrote me off as a cult artist, the kind who gets critically acclaimed and artistically appreciated, but who won't transfer to the marketplace, to the guy in the pickup truck in Sapulpa, Oklahoma."
"What they didn't know" -- and now Yoakam's voice begins to rise with evangelistic fervor -- "what they had ignored, what they had left behind years ago, was the heart of what I do musically. It's music that never left the seat of that hillbilly's pickup in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. That's where our music comes from . . . This music is real, straight ahead, always was commercial and hopefully always will be, an ethnic American form."
Yoakam's crusade on behalf of traditional country music springs from his mountain roots. He grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, singing gospel in the Church of Christ and listening to the likes of Ray Price, Buck Owens and Johnny Horton on the radio. His album is dedicated to his coal-mining grandfather, Luther Tibbs.
"Being born in Kentucky and having my mother's family there has left its imprint," he says. "I feel blessed by my exposure to that hillbilly culture. It's a vanishing part of America and I'll always be proud of it. I feel I have to acknowledge it because it's given me the subject matter and form for my music. I never could sing rock 'n' roll. I have a country voice."
By the mid-'70s, Yoakam had begun the first of a number of unsuccessful attempts to sell himself as a country singer in Nashville. "They just yawned," he says, laughing. By 1978, he had endured enough rejection and headed for Los Angeles.
"I went to L.A.," he explains, "because of Emmylou Harris and the country-rock scene on the West Coast. I knew there was still an awareness of pure country there. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens came out of there, and country music has been big in California since Capitol Records started there in the '40s. There's a real tradition conducive to guitars and Cadillacs, a real rock 'n' roll cowboy mentality."
After playing in the working-class bars of the San Fernando and San Bernardino valleys, Yoakam finally broke into the L.A. rock scene, which, thanks to groups like Rank and File, the Blasters and Lone Justice, was already tuned to country influences. Traditional as his country music was, its hard edge and beat quickly won Yoakam a new breed of fan. "They sensed the raw motion in our act," Yoakam says. "There was an emotional integrity the rockers could relate to."
By 1984 Yoakam had released a six-song independent EP (all six cuts are also on the album), but L.A. labels were avoiding him because he was country and Nashville labels still found him too rough. The dilemma was solved when Yoakam signed with Warner Bros. in Nashville and struck an agreement with Warner subsidiary Reprise to promote him in the rock market.
Now Yoakam can appear on cable's Nashville Network one week and MTV the next. While he has played regular country shows and will appear at Wolf Trap on Wednesday with Emmylou Harris, he also has played the rock clubs with acts like Hu sker Du and the Violent Femmes (he'll be at the 9:30 club July 31).
"The closest I may ever come to the Hank Williams tag," Yoakam says, "is that I can transcend boundaries like Hank did. I can appeal to diverse audiences. As a band, I think we come close to early Johnny Cash. Cash was a hillbilly act just a breath away from rock 'n' roll. His music, like ours, was pure hillbilly with rhythm."