Dwight Yoakam's Guide to Bluegrass, From Ralph Stanley to Ricky Skaggs

Emily Joyce
Dwight Yoakam

Country veteran Dwight Yoakam has helped anchor his genre's traditional wing since the '80s, when he first started pumping out hard-charging honky tonk records. His latest album, Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars, looks to revive another strand of country history that has largely been forgotten by the genre's mainstream: bluegrass. 

"Being born in Pikeville, Kentucky, it's been inevitable from the beginning of my career — from the beginning of my life— that I would end up making a bluegrass record," he tells Billboard. "I've sung that way throughout my life," he adds. "It's just been framed within the margins of more commercial, traditional country context and presentation." 

Yoakam is an avid student of the form, happy to discuss the way bluegrass evolved from the 1920s -- when it was one of "the first radically successful commercial versions of country music in the public consciousness" -- through the Great Depression and the post-war period, where bars became more important than barns as places to hear music, and bluegrass "was overtaken by the louder colloquial expressions of country." He suggests that Swimmin' Pools channels "the late '50s, early '60s variation of bluegrass in terms of the aggression of what we were playing."

As if to prove that bluegrass was always an important part of his work, Swimmin' Pools finds Yoakam returning to deep cuts from his own catalog and redoing them in bluegrass form. "The producers [Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall] came to me and said, 'look, we have looked through about 200 songs, and we kind of keep coming back to your songs,'" Yoakam remembers. "Flattery will get you everywhere. I can't hold anything against my own songs." "I rediscovered what I suspected originally," he continues. "They were bluegrass songs hidden in a more contemporary arrangement." 

Billboard caught up with Yoakam during a rare day off at his home in L.A. to discuss his relationship with bluegrass and some of the singers that have been important to his understanding the genre over the years. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Hear Dwight Yoakam's Twangy Tribute to Prince: A Bluegrass 'Purple Rain'

Jimmy Martin

Bluegrass was just what you heard on the radio in Southeast Kentucky when you were driving along. Even on Sunday morning, you heard a version of bluegrass being performed as gospel -- they used to call the hillbilly hymns. It was all around; it was what my family sang: the colloquial expression of the region. 

Jimmy Martin was being played on those radio stations. That was one of the first albums I came into contact with; my grandfather had it. It was straight-up bluegrass. "Sunny Side of the Mountain" was one of his big hits; I've performed that over the years live. Listen to Martin sing "Widow Maker" and "Sunny Side Of The Mountain." Listen to the late '50s, early '60s records of his. That's to me the apex of his career, his full expression musically.

The Louvin Brothers

They're a more, if you will, evolved version of bluegrass music. The Everly Brothers are a direct lineage from the Louvins. The Everly Brothers are a classic example of taking that kind of mountain music and modernizing it for late '50s rock/pop culture. The melody will change its position with the third above harmony, and then the third above will become the third below harmony. Then you hear it [again] in the British Invasion with The Beatles.

Ralph Stanley

Throughout my recording career there have been moments of bluegrass showing up — things like my guesting on Ralph Stanley's album in 1992, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. We did two cuts on that, including my song "Miner's Prayer." Though I did it with electric instrumentation on my first album, it was certainly written as a bluegrass song -- a bluegrass lament, if you will. Some years later I invited Ralph to be on the Under The Covers album, and he and I covered The Clash's "Train In Vain" as a bluegrass cut. We did one on A Long Way Home titled "Traveler's Lantern" that Ralph also guested on, which was again a pseudo-bluegrass song. I've always been doing mountain music in the way I write melodically -- it's my natural writing inclination.

Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs reinterpreted bluegrass in the early '80s. That was another benchmark for me -- somebody that I could look to and point that was doing traditional forms of country music when I was working with my first producer, Pete Anderson. We would look to Ricky's success with what he was doing: reintroducing very traditional song material, melodies, to commercial country music radio in '83, '84, '85. 

Ricky invited me to be a part of his tribute to Bill Monroe, and we did a version of "Rocky Road Blues," which I used to point to as an early example of what could have been a rockabilly cut, or rock and roll. 

Ricky came out of traditional bluegrass originally. He was a prodigy. A kid on TV early in his childhood playing mandolin and singing. Then he was in Ralph Stanley's band, one of the versions of the Clinch Mountain Boys, as was Keith Whitley, one of the great singers of bluegrass ever. Ricky was born on the same highway, Route 23 in Eastern Kentucky, further up about 75 miles north of where I was born. We can't get away from one another, and I've always admired and respected him greatly for what he did and reintroduced, with absolute respect, that form of country music -- in a modified version -- to a commercial audience.

Earl Scruggs

Earl was a friend who graciously invited me to participate in his album a few years ago, Earl Scruggs And Friends. I met his wife and Earl over the years, and they had become friends. I got together with him in the studio to work on another one of the tracks that Flat & Scruggs were going to do a little bit down the road. While we were waiting to set everything up to cut the track, Earl and I began playing something back and forth, and that evolved into a song called "Borrowed Love." After the '60s variation of Flatt & Scruggs, after they went on to have separate careers, Earl formed -- at the height of the country rock movement -- a variation of his own view of hybrid bluegrass with his sons, Gary and Randy. They had a profound impact. I think it led to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band doing Will The Circle Be Unbroken. It was a joy to be on that record with Earl. Between Ralph and Earl, they wore me down into it -- they kept trying to make me a bluegrass singer, and finally it happened. They stayed on me long enough, admonishing me that that's what I needed to do.