Looking at the title of Dwight Yoakam’s new album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars..., you might see a cheeky nod to the name of the debut album that put him on the map three decades ago, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. And he even reprises the title track of that groundbreaking album on his new effort for a 30th anniversary salute. But he’s hardly resurrecting the style of that freshman album. Instead, he is recasting some of his greatest songs (plus Prince’s “Purple Rain”) in an acoustic mountain-music vein.
Bluegrass “has always been, as Glenn Frey would say, whispering in my other ear,” Yoakam says. “I hope we did justice to the legacy of that genre and kept the spirit of reckless abandon. When you look back on the ‘30s and ‘40s, the bluegrassers were considered the wild men in music – on the white side of culture, with of course R&B and jump blues on the black side. Bluegrass was rock and roll, before there was such an animal. Hopefully we have that spirit in this.”
The seed for this project might have been planted long ago by one of the greats of the genre. “In deference to his recent passing, I need to mention that the first person who ever mentioned it to me was Ralph Stanley,” Yoakam says. “In the early ‘90s, I went in and recorded with Ralph around two Norman microphones with the live bluegrass band that was the Clinch Mountain Boys at that time,” when Stanley had asked him to come in and record a duet of “Miner’s Prayer,” a song from Yoakam’s first album. “And he looked at me after we finished doing ‘Miner’s Prayer’ and said, ‘Me and the band think you ought to think about being a bluegrass singer.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess my birth certificate gives me some credentials to own the holler that I was living in the first couple years of my life…’”
If you’re still wondering about the title of Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, and how Yoakam came to choose something as unlikely as that for the name of an album that harks back to Yoakam’s Kentucky roots… well, yes, it is as flippant as it sounds. But in another sense, for someone who’s as much of a musical historian as Yoakam, it’s completely serious.
“It’s tongue in cheek,” he says, “because the album started in Nashville, and ended up in… well, you know, California is the place you oughta be!” (He did the final vocal sessions in some of L.A.’s more historic studios.) “But also, I thought, well, I’m gonna give a wink back to Flatt and Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and everybody who came out here. This album really is that hybrid expression of a journey — and it’s the American journey. It’s the Dust Bowl ‘30s era blowing colloquial music out to California with all the Okie/Arkie/Texan migrants. Folks from Kansas and Nebraska and the plains all ended up out here and brought with ‘em their cultural elements. Without that, you don’t have Buck Owens out here, and you don’t have Merle Haggard.” And you certainly wouldn’t have the émigré that most roots enthusiasts would crown the reigning king of California country, Dwight Yoakam.