Dwight Yoakam’s Rock Roots

How the singer became a Johnny Cash favorite

When Johnny Cash appeared on “Larry King Live” in 2002, he was asked the kind of question most legends recoil from: Who are your favorite female and male artists?

What star would want to insult the other outstanding singers not chosen?

“Dwight Yoakam,” Cash responded, in an Arkansas second.

The interview occurred at a time when “pop” country was swallowing the genre whole. Blake Shelton was getting his feet wet, and it was a couple of years yet before Carrie Underwood’s win as an “American Idol.”

Yoakam, who released the excellent “Second Hand Heart” album earlier this year, has lived up to Cash’s praise ever since.

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The singer, who turns 59 on Friday, was born in Kentucky but raised in Columbus, Ohio. This duality of environment had an immense impact on Yoakam, who took classes in singing and acting, and attended Ohio State for a while.

Ohio is a kaleidoscope of music. Venture west to Dayton and you’ll find the birthplace of funk with the Ohio Players. Guided by Voices, the band Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder regarded as the greatest indie music group, is from Dayton, along with Kim Deal of the Pixies, which was a pioneering alternative band, and Sawyer Brown vocalist Mark Miller.

Throw a rock in Ohio, you’ll hit a music act, or maybe a complete genre — Devo, The Black Keys, influential punk guitarist Robert Quinne, and rocker Rick Derringer, who grew up in tiny farm town Fort Recovery, amidst tractors and radios playing Conway Twitty.

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Cash and Yoakam’s musical associations were eerily similar.

While Cash toured early with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Yoakam moved to Los Angeles after Nashville wouldn’t take to his brand of honky-tonk country. He would play a variety of clubs and shared the stage with early and definitive punk acts like “X” and played shows with Husker Du, one of the most beloved and influential alternative and indie rock acts of all time.

This variety of influences carved Yoakam into an original, with attitude to spare. Yoakam once began a music video shooting a high-caliber revolver at a man for stealing the distributor cap off his El Camino. Florida-Georgia Line, Luke Bryan he isn’t.

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Yoakam can croon like no one else, but his rock-influenced works were his most influential. “Fast As You” carries a guitar riff fit for ZZ Top — no fiddle to be found. He bangs on a Rickenbacker like Tom Petty at times (not exactly a country guitar) and has covered Queen via “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

Later in his career, he delved more into rock, not unlike Cash. When Cash began releasing a series of cover albums that would be the last of his work, he sang Petty, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. Cash’s version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails left Trent Reznor’s band incapable of playing it live.

This variety of influences carved Yoakam into a pure original, with attitude to spare.

Yoakam claimed a song in the same manner, and it was a cover by one of Cash’s contemporaries – Elvis Presley. The King of Rock’s “Suspicious Minds” is a masterpiece, a song Presley covered in his own right. Yoakam did The King one better. Yoakam’s guitarist Pete Anderson’s simple chordal riff is the most distinctive in all of ’90s music.

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No country musician of the era — or now — could pull it off, though they probably listened to it 1,000 times and tried. In the video, he’s in Vegas singing and strumming and chained to an otherworldly blonde in a black dress worthy of a mortgage — not the kind of woman to jump into the front seat of your jacked and rusty Silverado, just as Yoakam wasn’t the kind of musician who could be replicated.

There’s only one — and thank the Lord we’ve had him for 59 years.

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