Dwight Yoakam Says New Album Was Inspired By Coal Mining And Mountain Music The country star plays songs and talks with Fresh Air about his grandfather's work in the coal mines. Yoakam's latest album, Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars ... features bluegrass versions of his hits.

Dwight Yoakam Says New Album Was Inspired By Coal Mining And Mountain Music

Dwight Yoakam Says New Album Was Inspired By Coal Mining And Mountain Music

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The country star plays songs and talks with Fresh Air about his grandfather's work in the coal mines. Yoakam's latest album, Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars ... features bluegrass versions of his hits.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, country music star Dwight Yoakam, is joining us with his guitar. And he's going to play some songs for us. He has a new album with a tongue-in-cheek title "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." which was released 30 years after his debut album "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc." The new album features bluegrass versions of some of Yoakam's own country songs. Yoakam was described by The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles as a high-concept classicist who inhabits an era and geography all his own, a remembered California where Buck Owens and The Byrds somehow reigned together in harmony. Yoakam has had his share of hits and platinum albums. On his way to becoming a country music star, he became part of LA's punk and roots rock scene, sharing the bill with bands like X and The Blasters, playing what became known as cowpunk. He's also an actor who's been in the films "Sling Blade" and "Panic Room" and is in the Amazon series "Goliath." Let's start with a track from his new album. This is his bluegrass version of his country song "Please, Please Baby," which he first recorded in 1987.


DWIGHT YOAKAM: One, two and a one, two, three. (Singing) Please, please baby, baby come back home. It's so cold and dark here all alone. If you come back I promise I'll be good. If you come back home, baby, I'll act like I should. I laughed when you packed your bags and told me goodbye. I hollered I don't need you, but honey that's a lie. Please, please baby, baby, come back home 'cause it's so cold and dark here all alone. If you come back I promise I'll be good. If you come home, baby, I'll act like I should.

GROSS: That's music from Dwight Yoakam's new album "Swimming Pools, Movie Stars." Dwight Yoakam, welcome to FRESH AIR.

YOAKAM: Oh, well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Your grandfather was a miner. He was a miner for - what? - like, 40 years.

YOAKAM: Forty years, yeah, over...

GROSS: Did he tell you stories about working in the mines?

YOAKAM: No, he was pretty quiet guy. I heard more of the stories from my mother and my granny and my aunts that would describe what they had known that he didn't often talk about. I remember seeing him as a child. He was working in a mine that was fairly close to their home there in Betsy Lane, Ky., and it was so close in proximity that he wouldn't clean up or shower there. He would just drive back home. And I remember one time seeing him come in and it was like seeing an alien person show up because he was still covered in coal dust and soot, and it had a profound impact on me.

I realized, you know, in retrospect as - you know, as I wrote things about it, about my life and my family's existence, I realized that it was a frighteningly harsh way to make a living. And I used to say that they were slowly dying trying to make a living. You know, he had black lung, and he didn't talk about it much. It's almost like a combat veteran. But he witnessed some horrific things.

He was very, very fortunate that he was never trapped in a mining cave-in. But he lost his brother in a mining disaster on a shift that he wasn't working. And he was in a collapse where his brother-in-law was killed very near him in the same section. They were working together in the same section of a mine where a cave-in occurred. And he had injured his hand and a certain deformation of the finger that I always knew about as a kid, knew that that particular injury at his finger had been caused in that disaster that killed his brother-in-law, my grandmother's brother.

And he never talked about his own brother's death to me. My mother told me about that and told me about the impact on her family. And that's part of what you hear in the first verse of "Miner's Prayer."

GROSS: Well, since you've been generous enough to bring your guitar with you, I'm going to ask you if you wouldn't mind singing that song that you wrote, "Miner's Prayer."

YOAKAM: Sure. I'll do that for you.

(Singing) When the whistle blows each morning and I walk down in that cold, dark mine, say a prayer to my dear savior. Please let me see the sunshine one more time. When oh when will it be over? When will I lay these burdens down? And when I die, dear lord in heaven, please take my soul from 'neath that cold, dark ground. I still grieve for my poor brother, and I still hear my dear old mother cry. When late at night they came and told her he'd lost his life down in the big shoal mine. When oh when will it be over? When will I lay these burdens down? And when I die, dear lord in heaven, please take my soul from 'neath that cold dark ground.

GROSS: That's Dwight Yoakam singing his song "Miner's Prayer." Thank you - thank you for performing that. Did your grandfather, who was a miner, ever hear that song?

YOAKAM: No, he never did. I wrote it after he died. I'd gone back to his funeral, and he died in 1979. And I came back to California, and I think a couple of weeks after that funeral wrote that song thinking about him, his life. And now, sadly, I wish I had been able to play that for him. Yeah, I'll never escape the influence of him in my life. And my - his wife, my grandmother, Earlene Tibbs - those experiences with them shaped me musically probably more profoundly than anything else in my life and shaped me as a writer.

GROSS: Did your grandparents sing?

YOAKAM: Yes, they did. They both sang. My grandmother had a very haunted mountain voice and would sing hymns. My grandpa would sing but in a very, very subdued way. And he'd ask me about learning "Cripple Creek" on the guitar. And I remember when I came across - I didn't know the song. It was an old bluegrass, a mountain song. And then I heard "Up On Cripple Creek" by The Band and I thought that's what he was talking about. And I played it for him, and he seemed confused by me saying, Grandpa, I learned "Cripple Creek," which was the (singing) up on Cripple Creek, she'll send me. If I spring a leak, she'll mend me. Anyway, it had nothing to do with (singing) going up Cripple Creek, going up Cripple Creek, going up Cripple Creek, going on the run. Going up to Cripple Creek to have some fun.

There's - you know, again, I think back and he never said that's not the song I meant.

GROSS: (Laughter) Really?

YOAKAM: He listened to me play. Yeah, I was about 11 years old when I heard the other one on the radio. And I went back when I saw him the next time, I said, Grandpa, I think I learned "Cripple Creek." And I sang the one with The Band. And he just kind of nodded and listened to me sing it, said, oh, yeah, well, that's real good.


YOAKAM: I realized later that it was not the same song.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dwight Yoakam. He has a new album featuring bluegrass versions of some of his songs. It's called "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is country music singer, songwriter, guitarist Dwight Yoakam. He has a new album called "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." which features new recordings of some of his earlier songs. But this time he does them in a bluegrass style. The church that you grew up in was the Church of Christ.

YOAKAM: Right.

GROSS: What was the singing like in church?

YOAKAM: Well, the congregation that I was raised in was one that sang and a non-instrumental fashion. It was all a cappella singing, and so that had a major influence on me. And those songs, I think, shaped to some degree how I would evolve as a writer, pentameter of songs, the melodies of those kind of hillbilly hymns - I used to refer to them - because they were not Southern gospel as much as they were passed down from Scottish Welsh Protestant hymnals.

GROSS: Can you sing a hymn for us?

YOAKAM: I did this actually at Buck's funeral. It was one of his favorite hymns and we were talking about it one time. He goes...

GROSS: At Buck Owens' funeral.

YOAKAM: Yeah Buck Owens' funeral. After having discussed it with him because I sang it on a piece about Minnie Pearl's life. She and I had talked one time about our hymns. And it came up that I always liked "In The Garden" and she said to me, oh, that was my favorite hymn.

(Singing) I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear falling on my ear the son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me. And he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

That's a little bit of "In The Garden."

GROSS: That's Dwight Yoakam singing and playing guitar. You said these songs influenced you. Can you talk about the influence of the songs on your own songwriting, these hymns?

YOAKAM: Well, I think the way that, you know, I listen to hundreds of those hymns sung repeatedly over the years of my life. And I know that they probably influenced a rhyme scheme maybe to certain extent. They influenced, you know, the pentameter of placement of words, etc. And it's not something that's a conscious thing that occurred. It's more in retrospect as I've thought about it over the years and look back at what I wrote, how I wrote things - like there's a song that Ralph Stanley later recorded with me that he had guested on my record what was called "Travelers Lantern" that I wrote as basically, you know, a hymn.

(Singing) Deep in the night, you hear a voice calling lost and alone, barely able to speak. Each weary step through cold shadows they stumble. Lost and alone.

You know what? I just forgot what the next lyric was I was going to sing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOAKAM: Something.

GROSS: But I see your point, I think, about like the simple line of it.

YOAKAM: Yeah. Well - and just - and melodically, I was influenced by, you know, those hymns. And "Hold On To God" was another one that I wrote early on my early records. Obviously it was a literal reference to all of that.

GROSS: Did you stay with the faith or just with the music?

YOAKAM: I guess I stayed with the faith. I mean, organized religion is not something that I've maintained a direct connection to in my life, but the spirituality of it has had an indelible impact on my life and remains with me.

GROSS: You've written your share of drinking songs over the years, and drinking songs are a staple of country music. Did you write drinking songs because they were part of the genre or because you'd spent a lot of time in bars?

YOAKAM: (Laughter) I'm the sober guy that can tell you what went on.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOAKAM: You know, I don't really drink, but I've been around a lot of drinking, and, you know, at 18, when you start playing in bars, you know, you start to witness the good, the bad and the ugly of alcohol as a source of escape. And I wrote about it because I witnessed its use as a means of medicating - a lot of people using it to medicate themselves from hurt.

GROSS: Along those lines, one of the songs you do on your new album. "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." is a song called "Two Doors Down" which is about a bar that's two doors down that might medicate this person from their pain for a little bit. Would you play a little bit of that for us?

YOAKAM: Let me see. I haven't had to...

(Singing) Two doors down there's a jukebox that plays all night long real sad songs all about me and you. Two doors down there's a barmaid that pours 'em real strong. Here lately that's how I make it through. Two doors down there's a payphone but no calls come in. Two doors down there's a memory that won't ever end.

One of the first drinking songs I wrote was on my first album "Guitars Cadillacs," and it was also from watching and playing in the bars bearing witness to the kind of haven that honky tonk bars were for a lot of people from the struggles in there.

GROSS: So when you - when you were putting on a show in the bar, the people in the bar were putting on a show for you in a way (laughter).

YOAKAM: Well, I was certainly taking in, yeah, the movie that went on in front of me every night. And I wrote "It Won't Hurt" based on having watched that for a few years in my late teens, early 20s.

(Singing) It won't hurt when I fall down from this barstool. And it won't hurt when I stumble in the street. It won't hurt 'cause this whiskey eases misery. But even whiskey cannot ease your hurting me.

And I guess I see sometimes - you know, being on the sober end of the bandstand watching - saw the sad futility in trying to drink trouble away and wrote about it from that angle. There was, you know, kind of that end of that - you know, that song - the hook of that is that - but even whiskey, you know.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you stayed sober because you'd seen so much damage from drinking?

YOAKAM: Yeah, I mean, I was raised, as we mentioned a little while ago, in the Church of Christ, which was a very abstinent faith. And I just didn't - there was never anything that I found seductive enough, I guess, to have a romance with it.

GROSS: Well, I'm really grateful to you for performing some of your songs for us today. Thank you so much for doing that. And...

YOAKAM: Ma'am, you're welcome.

GROSS: ...And can I ask you to leave us with a song?

YOAKAM: Sure. What're you thinking?

GROSS: Well, I was thinking maybe "Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose."

YOAKAM: Oh, yeah.

(Singing) Well, I'm back again for another night of trying to break free from the sadness that I can't lay to rest. This old honkey tonk sure does feel like home, and the music with the laughter seem to soothe my loneliness. Turn it on, turn it up, turn me loose from her memory that's driving me lonely, crazy and blue. It helps me forget her so the louder the better, hey mister, turn it on, turn it up, turn me loose.

GROSS: Dwight Yoakam, thank you so much.

YOAKAM: No, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Dwight Yoakam's new album "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." features bluegrass versions of some of his country songs. After we take a short break, we'll hear from writer Maria Semple. Her new comic novel is about a beleaguered wife, mother and artist who promises herself today will be different. And Kevin Whitehead will review a newly released Dizzy Gillespie concert from 1980. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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