Rebels with a Cause: How Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle Saved Country Music

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

By Greg Cahill

30 years ago, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle released their debut albums. Nashville has never been the same

“I first met Steve Earle in 1985 at a George Strait concert. Steve had come out from Nashville to play for a while and to see what was going on in LA. I didn’t really know who he was when we were introduced backstage at that show. But we were both about to do something big,” Dwight Yoakam recalls, during a phone call from the Warner Bros. office in Los Angeles. “Warner was just about to issue [my] Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. album and MCA was about to release [Earle’s] Guitar Town. And then there was Lyle Lovett coming out of Texas and k.d. lang coming out of Canada.

“So there was something in the water or in the air that was leading to this.”

The neo-traditional movement sprouted in the mid-’80s as a formidable alternative to such tepid pop-flavored country acts as Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Marie Osmond, Ronnie Milsap, and other mainstream artists that dominated the country charts. It didn’t take long for city slickers to realize something fresh was brewing. “After half a decade of slumping sales and stifled creativity, country music has turned itself around,” the New York Times opined, just a year after the release of Yoakam and Earle’s major-label debuts. “Today the nonupholstered, acoustically based sound of the so-called new traditionalists has captured the ears of a new young audience. . . . Record companies here in Nashville are frantically competing to sign young singers and songwriters who look back to the great honky-tonk tradition of the 1940s and ’50s.

“Long-haired musicians in blue jeans, work shirts, and cowboy boots shuttle among scores of music publishing offices, record companies, and studios that line Nashville’s Music Row. By night, in the city’s ten ‘songwriter bars,’ aspiring bands and singer-composers carry on the country-rock tradition developed in the late 1960s and ’70s by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Gram Parsons, and the Eagles. The new troubadours are a cosmopolitan lot who come not only from around the South, but also from other musical capitals—Los Angeles, New York and London—lured by the revitalization of a genre that just two years ago seemed to some to be an endangered species.”

The Times had made its first mention of the Kentucky-born, Ohio-bred Yoakam in 1986 as the opening act for the punk band Hüsker Dü, describing the honky-tonk country singer as possessing “a voice filled with ache and twang” as he sang about “drinking and loving and losing.”

Yoakam, who last fall released his 14th studio album, Second Hand Heart (Warner Bros.), was a new kind of sex symbol. At a time when country star Eddie Rabbit sported a perm and a silk disco shirt strategically unbuttoned to reveal his hairy chest and gold chains, the then­–29-year-old Yoakam offered not only a fresh sound, but also a new look: He dressed in skin-tight jeans, a faded denim jacket turned up at the collar, and an over-sized white Stetson pulled mysteriously over his brow (fans wouldn’t learn till years later that the hat hid a receding hairline).

On his debut, Yoakam strummed a big Martin D-28.

He was a stylized, guitar-toting cow-punching version of the late actor James Dean, the personification of danger and mystery.

The singer had recorded the original six-song extended-play (EP) of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. in 1984. The EP, produced by Telecaster master Pete Anderson, was released the following year on Oak Records, a small indie hardcore label based in Southern California. The EP included the strong Yoakam originals “It Won’t Hurt” and “South of Cincinnati,” along with a blistering cover of Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire.” Yoakam couldn’t afford to record the title track—in fact, he’d paid for the initial recording sessions with a $5,000 credit-card advance from Tulsa drummer Richard Coffey, a friend who received a portion of the publishing rights in exchange for the funds.

Few country fans took notice.

‘I think things are cyclical—every decade or so a generation rediscovers and redefines whatever the genre of music there is and delivers it anew.’—Dwight Yoakam

Still, the EP led to Yoakam’s major-label deal with Warner Bros. Records, which in 1986 reissued Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., with four additional songs, including the twangy title track—a Telecaster-fueled tribute to guitars, cars, and hillbilly music.


Ironically, Nashville had rejected Yoakam when he’d first ventured there in 1977, but the release of his debut album helped to kick down the door for other neo-traditionalists and eventually alt-country and Americana acts, as well as such edgier contemporary country acts as Kasey Musgraves. “Here’s the thing: The only rules are there are no rules,” Yoakam says of country music after the neo-traditionalists came on the scene. “I think things are cyclical—every decade or so a generation rediscovers and redefines whatever the genre of music there is and delivers it anew. It’s always interesting to watch that happen and it’s happening again right now in country music—country music has never been so youth oriented, except perhaps when Hank Williams Sr. first came on the scene with what was the music of young, rural America.”

Of course, Yoakam didn’t emerge from a vacuum: Emmylou Harris and her former arranger and bandleader Ricky Skaggs, as well as George Strait, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, and Roseanne Cash, among others, were pioneering country acts that blazed the trail for the neo-traditionalists. But the mid-’80s signaled a turning point. “Maybe it was the harmonic convergence, or perhaps it was just plain circumstance, but 1986 turned out to be a knockout year in country music,” the Rough Guide to Country Music noted. “Never mind that pop-oriented singers like Janie Fricke and Lee Greenwood were still topping the country sales charts: this was the year that new traditionalism came of age in Nashville.”

Yoakam, Earle, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, and the O’Kanes were the artists that clinched the deal, the music guide continued, thanks to an impressive debut album released by each of them that year. . . . “These were strong, highly individualistic visions from some of the most offbeat country artists to come hollerin’ down the Nashville pike in years,” The Rough Guide opined. “Finally, after a decade rife with middle-of-the-road pap, Music Row was showing a willingness to take chances with edgier artists—singers who cut against the grain.”

The neo-traditionalists were a diverse bunch: the rock-influenced twang of Earle’s Guitar Town delivered a nod to the Outlaw country of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jesse Colter and Tompall Glaser, as well as Merle Haggard; Lovett wrote gentle, front-porch folk ballads, often with his tongue planted firmly in cheek; k.d. lang turned heads with vocal gymnastics and rockabilly rave-ups; and Yoakam delved into the rich honky-tonk tradition of Bakersfield, California, which The Rough Guide called “the spiritual home of Buck Owens.”

Just as their predecessors sowed the seeds a few years earlier for the neo-traditionalists, Yoakam, Earle and their cohorts opened the door for such late-’80s and ’90s country acts as the Judds, Reba McEntire, Joe Ely (who had co-found the Flatlanders with fellow Texans Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hanckock), Carlene Carter, Garth Brooks, Nanci Griffiths, Keith Whitley, Ricky Van Shelton (whose big cowboy hats and trademark t-shirts are de riguer for today’s country rockers), Rosie Flores, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Robert Earl Keen, the Kentucky Headhunters, and Kelly Willis, among others.

Emmylou Harris sings high praise for Earle’s status among the neo-traditionalists, and for continuing to challenge the Nashville status quo. “Steve is so understanding of all that great core tissue that is the real pulse of country music,” Harris told me a few years ago, “and that is completely invisible in what is happening in country music right now, at least on that hugely successful scale. You know, that generic, bloodless stuff that is churned out? I’m completely mystified by it. We’ve now become musical producers of what is comparable to the Big Mac—you know what you’re going to get every time you open up the wrapper.”

She paused and then added with a faint chuckle, “Actually, it doesn’t even taste as good as a Big Mac.”

Earle was no overnight sensation. The Virginia-born singer-songwriter had arrived in Nashville from Texas in 1974, more than a decade before he would step into the national spotlight. “I’d been in Nashville for awhile,” he says. “I’d come close to record deals. I had a deal on Epic for a minute. I went directly from that to this deal [with MCA]. And it was a big deal. Basically, I had a publisher that believed in me and who believed in writer/artists at a time when Nashville wasn’t exactly a singer-songwriter kind of town. “

‘I really did think I could save country music in the hope that it could come back to being the country music that I loved, which wasn’t a majority of it.’—Steve Earle

Steve Earle performed on World Cafe.
Steve Earle

Earle’s breakthrough as a singer-songwriter arrived in 1984 after seeing Bruce Springsteen’s blockbuster Born in the USA tour. “He opened with ‘Born in the USA’ and it occurred to me, just write a record. So I wrote ‘Guitar Town’ to open the album—I put aside all the stuff I had, all the songs I had been championing for so long, and I wrote the Guitar Town album in eight or nine months. Then I got the record deal and I put it out.”

The acoustic guitar he used to record Guitar Town—the title is a reference to the home of all those Nashville pickers—was the first J-100 built in Nashville after Gibson started building that model again. “They weren’t particularly accurate, those ’80s J-100s, but it’s a big maple guitar and not very fancy,” he says. “It’s basically a J-200 with dot markers. . . . It was a prototype that they leant to me for the record and I just refused to give it back. They were really cool to let me have it.”

That guitar, heard prominently throughout the Guitar Town album, provided the rhythm for those twangy Teles—it’s now in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Lyrically, Guitar Town captured an unpretentious, blue-collar aesthetic with references to truck stops, blaring car radios, local yokels, and cheap guitars: Those themes are couched in a defiant, often yearning tone that served as a backdrop for the small-town dreamers evoked on the title track and such songs as “Hillbilly Highway,” “Fearless Heart” and “Someday.”

“Some of that is me and some of it is me channeling other people’s stories,” he says of the songwriting. “‘Someday’ is about a kid I saw in a filling station right outside of Jackson, Tennessee, a couple of years before I ever wrote the song. He was just a guy I saw and I made up a story about him. ‘Fearless Heart’ is just me trying to pick up girls.”

Did it work?

There’s a long pause. “Some,” he quips, perhaps recalling his seven marriages.

One of the first things he did after signing to MCA was to shop around Yoakam’s six-song EP. “I took Dwight’s first record [Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc.] to [producer and soon-to-be president of MCA Nashville] Tony Brown, when I was just signed and was getting ready to make Guitar Town, and he passed on it. Warner ended up signing Dwight instead in LA.

“I loved that EP, I championed it around.”

And what of the neo-traditionalist movement he helped to cultivate? “Maybe you should talk to Robert Christgau [the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics],” Earle says, “or whoever else came up with that term. Dwight and I came from outside of country music. I was in Nashville, but I had been a songwriter trying to write country songs. But basically, I was a folk singer. Still, I had stumbled onto something—I really did think I could save country music in the hope that it could come back to being the country music that I loved, which wasn’t a majority of it. Dwight, I think, he was the same as me, my guess is that he also grew up listening to the Beatles and the Rollings Stones, just like me.”

Asked about his musical influences, Yoakam says, “I was listening to everything. Obviously, at that point, there was no Internet as we know it—it was terrestrial radio, whether it was a country station here in LA or one of the album-rock stations, so I listened to a wide variety of music. I’ve always been a huge fan of early rockabilly, and that influenced me greatly. The Beatles were always in my head space and in terms of influencing me melodically through their reinterpretations of Buddy Holly and the Everlys. I mean, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and the Everlys, influenced me heavily in my late teens and early adult life. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, I had taken tutelage from them. I was listening to things that had been contemporary in the late ’70s and early ’80s: guitar-rock bands like the Pretenders, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Rockpile—there was just a great menagerie of contemporary stuff that was going on.


“It was a wonderful moment in music.”

So how did he get from the Beatles to his driving cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky-Tonk Man,” the love-sick title track, and the coal-miner’s lament “Miner’s Prayer,” all heard on Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc.?

“Well, I was born in rural southeast Kentucky, in Appalachia, so country is in my DNA,” Yoakam says. “I grew up hearing it without even having to look for it: Mountain music, the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley—that kind of rural American music was part of my inherited legacy, from my family and the culture of that region.

“And bluegrass—mountain music, more specifically—had always been a part of my own voice. I had been doing that from high school to the point when I signed with Warner.”

Yoakam also had a connection with the then–nascent cowpunk scene, sometimes dismissed as a joke by mainstream critics though it had enthusiastic audiences in New York, LA, San Francisco, and other punk-rock havens. Many of the best cowpunk bands grew out of the punk scene: For example, Los Cruzados was composed of three members of the Plugz; the Knitters was built around members of the seminal LA punk band X; and Rank and File included brothers Chip and Tony Kinman of the Dils (later they would form Cowboy Nation), as well as Alejandro Escovedo of the Nuns, who would go on to become the prince of the Austin, Texas, alt-country movement.

Many of those cowpunk bands in the early 1980s had set out to explore California country music. That scene coalesced on the recording series A Town South of Bakersfield (Enigma), launched in 1988, which featured Yoakam’s “I’ll Be Gone” as well as tracks by Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams. “That tongue-in-cheek title alluded to the scene going on in such LA clubs as the Palamino,” Yoakam says. “Ironically, the big hits in that genre were recorded in Hollywood, not in Bakersfield, and most of the musicians who had the hits on those compilations were Bakersfield musicians who would drive the 90 miles to LA to work at Capitol Records in Hollywood.”

“I never created music that was cowpunk,” Yoakam says, “but [Telecaster master and producer] Pete Anderson, who produced all my albums through the early 2000s, was exploring the influences that traditional and honky-tonk music had on us, and reinterpreting that and expressing it in my records.”

Still, the honky-tonk rhythms and cowpunk reveries can be heard on Yoakam’s recent albums. “3 Pears and Second Hand Heart have examples of what I’d call cowpunk versions of things,” he says. “The song that Beck and I co-produced, “A Heart Like Mine,” [from 3 Pears], has that influence—it has to do with the edgy, raucous, reckless electric guitar that I ended up playing on the base rhythm tracks.”

On the newest album, the cowpunk influence can be heard on “She,” “Liar,” and his cover of “A Man of Constant Sorrow,” which Yoakam calls “Bill Monroe colliding with the Ramones.”

“This most recent album has a lot in common with my first album, not in the literalness of the songwriting style or the sonics, but in the intent and the immediacy. And I think that has helped with the accessibility.”

The Pioneers


Gram Parsons
Grievous Angel


Rodney Crowell
Ain’t Living Long
Like This (1977)


Joe Ely
Honky Tonk



Emmylou Harris
(with Ricky Skaggs)
Roses in the Snow
(1980) Reprise


George Strait
Strait Country


Guy Clark
Better Days
DBK Works

Class of ’86


Dwight Yoakam
Guitar, Cadillacs,
Etc. Etc. (1986)


Steve Earl
Guitar Town



K.D. Lang & the
Reclines, Angel with
a Lariat (1986)


Lyle Lovett
Lyle Lovett
(1986) MCA/
MCA Nashville


Randy Travis
Storms of Life


Lone Justice

Greg Cahill
Greg Cahill

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