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Hailed as a "new traditionalist" who was an important part of the alt-country movement, platinum-selling musician and songwriter Dwight Yoakam eventually brought his swagger to screens big and small with a steady string of often villainous character roles. The singer's tendency to lurk mysteriously in a half-moon shadow beneath a low cowboy hat led to his initial casting as no-nonsense rednecks in Western-set dramas like John Dahl's "Red Rock West" (1993). After Yoakam's acclaimed role in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (1996) exposed sizeable talent, he landed a wider range of opportunities in mainstream fare like the Harrison Ford vehicle "Hollywood Homicide" (2003), Richard Linklater's period heist "The Newton Boys" (1998), and the high-octane "Crank" films (2006, 2009). Yoakam continually won the respect of music critics for his lasting career built on a classic honkytonk foundation, while his often deliciously creepy screen performances evolved into a status above the average musician-turned-actor.
Born in Pikeville, KY on Oct. 23, 1956, Yoakam was raised in Columbus, OH by his mother and stepfather, who worked in the automotive industry. Yoakam learned the guitar at a young age and schooled himself in country music through his mother's collection of classic country albums. In high school, he performed with rock and country bands and made his mark onstage in high school drama productions. Yoakam graduated from Northland High School in 1974 and had a brief stint at Ohio State University. After a period of trying to earn a living gigging locally, he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. Much to his dismay, the glossy, soft pop "Countrypolitan" sound ruled Music City at the time and Yoakam's stripped down, rootsy sound was of no interest to music executives looking for the next Kenny Rogers. What Yoakam did find was a kindred spirit in guitar player Pete Anderson, a Nashville transplant from Detroit. In the late 1970s, the pair moved to Los Angeles and dedicated themselves to their own uncompromised vision of country music.
L.A. audiences proved much more receptive to Yoakam's revved-up Bakersfield sound, which was modeled on the classic honkytonk of Californians Buck Owens and Merle Haggard as well as rockabilly classics from the Sun Studios heyday. He began to cultivate a following within the city's growing "cowpunk" scene, in which bands like X, Los Lobos, and The Blasters infused roots music styles with a modern attitude. In 1984, Yoakam self-released the EP A Town South of Bakersfield (1984), snaring enough buzz and college radio airplay that he was offered a contract with Reprise Records. Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986), produced by Anderson, was an instant hit with mainstream audiences, who embraced Yoakam and a slew of similarly debuting "new traditionalists" who were trying to steer country music back to a more authentic sound. In good company with trendsetters like Randy Travis and Steve Earle, Yoakam reached No. 1 on the country album charts and launched two Top Five country singles, "Honkytonk Man" and "Guitars, Cadillacs." That year, Yoakam was recognized with a Top New Male Vocalist Award from the Academy of Country Music.
Yoakam followed up his platinum-seller with the No. 1 album Hillbilly Deluxe (1987), which left no questions as to whether his breakout success had been a freshman fluke. He and Anderson cemented their role as keepers of the Bakersfield flame, while Yoakam continued to earn kudos for the dry wit, classic country imagery and poignant heartache in his songwriting. He also pleased his record company with four Top Ten singles including "Please Baby Please" and "Little Sister." The following year, the prolific newcomer enjoyed his first No. 1 single with "Streets of Bakersfield," a duet sung with his idol Buck Owens from the album Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988). The No. 1 charting album and follow-up No. 1 single "I Sang Dixie" led to Yoakam's first greatest hits album and a little breathing room to write his next album, If There Was a Way, which topped a million album sales in 1990. Despite Yoakam's million-selling albums and Top Ten hits, Nashville was reluctant to embrace him as they had "new traditionalists" like George Strait and the Judds, mainstays at the Country Music Awards throughout the 1990s. Outsider Yoakam continued to be overlooked by the industry, but one person who did not overlook the lanky moaner with the famously tight pants was Sharon Stone, who invited Yoakam to accompany her to the 1992 Academy Awards. Their tabloid-fodder affair was brief, with the actress later famously likening the singer to being as exciting as "a dirt sandwich."
With his electrifying stage performances that owed more than a little to Elvis Presley, it was only natural that Yoakam would want to test the acting waters. His first foray onto the screen was in the short-lived CBS series "P.S. I Luv You" (CBS, 1991-92), but he made a more substantial impact with his 1993 stage performance as a mental patient in "Southern Rapture," directed by Peter Fonda. He made his film debut with a small role as a truck driver who has an encounter with a drifter on the run (Nicolas Cage) in John Dahl's moody art house thriller "Red Rock West" (1993) - a role that introduced his oft-used screen persona of the irritated, often shouting redneck. The same year found Yoakam branching out musically with This Time, which effectively introduced lush arrangements that only added to the emotional impact of his evolving songwriting. The album spawned three No. 2 charting singles including "Ain't That Lonely Yet," which was honored with a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. It was three years before Yoakam released another album of original material, but in the meantime he continued to stand out onscreen, first with a believable performance as a (shouting and irritated) rancher who discovers space debris on his land in the fact-based TV movie "Roswell" (Showtime, 1994). Off-screen, he was photographed around town with his latest celebrity love, MTV vee-jay Karen Duffy.
In his first leading role, Yoakam starred as a drifting rodeo clown who returns home to Texas to face an uncomfortable past in "Painted Hero" (1995). The film never hit theaters, and Yoakam's follow-up turn as a photographer obsessed with a rich businessman's wife in the dreadful "The Little Death" (1995), was also released direct to video. But Yoakam was back on top musically with the release of Gone, which again built on his solid Bakersfield foundation and introduced 1960s R&B elements like horns and Hammond organ. He racked up more critical praise for the Top Five album, and for the first time found himself the subject of theatrical acclaim for his role in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (1996), a moody Southern fable about a simple man (Thornton) who finds a non-traditional home with a kindly single mom and her 12-year-old son following his release from a mental institute. The film topped countless critic's lists and earned Yoakam attention for taking his role of the single mom's abusive and alcoholic boyfriend beyond the one-dimensional villain and into nuanced, pathos-riddled territory. The film was ineligible for most Oscar Awards due to its previous incarnation as a short film, however Yoakam and the cast were given a Screen Actor's Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance from a Cast.
Thornton next tapped the musician-slash-actor to play the sleazy drug dealer to a down-and-out L.A. rocker in "Don't Look Back" (HBO, 1996). Yoakam and Thornton collaborated again with co-guest appearances in the infamous "Puppy Episode" of "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98) and an episode of the animated series "King of the Hill" (Fox, 1997-2010). Following a supporting role as military brass in the WWII-set HBO movie "When Trumpets Fade" (1998), Yoakam had a memorable turn into Richard Linklater's rather tame heist flick "The Newton Boys" (1998), as a nitroglycerin expert who helps a band of Depression-era brothers rob banks. He returned to the country album charts with 1998's A Long Way Home, which continued to push the stylistic boundaries and was well-received though it failed to produce any hits in the New Country environment of Garth Brooks and friends. After playing a detective on the trail of a quiet, elusive, killer (Owen Wilson) in the indie "The Minus Man" (1999), Yoakam made his screenwriting and directing debut with "South of Heaven, West of Hell" (2000). Unfortunately, not even a strong cast that included Thornton, Vince Vaughn and Bridget Fonda could not save the lackluster attempt at a philosophical revisionist Western in which Yoakam starred as a moral Marshal in the lawless turn-of-the-century West. On a positive note, the film did spark a long-term romance with co-star Fonda, and the publicity of their relationship did not hurt the release of two Yoakam albums that year.
With dwightyoakamacoustic.net, Yoakam offered sparse, man-and-his-acoustic-guitar renderings of selections spanning his career, while Tomorrow's Sounds Today poked fun at his revivalist reputation and delivered another acclaimed selection of timeless songs. He returned to acting in David Fincher's atmospheric thriller "Panic Room" (2002), as a sociopathic criminal and one of a trio of men who terrorize a homeowner (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) during an all-night standoff. He melded his psycho strengths into his role as a crooked cop in the slightly-smarter-than-average Harrison Ford cop movie "Hollywood Homicide" (2003). Having dropped his longtime record label, Reprise, Yoakam was full of more surprises - including a Burt Bacharach cover - with his 2003 Audium Records release Population, Me. He gave longtime producer Pete Anderson a break and produced his own follow-up Blame the Vain; the following year, he enjoyed one of his higher-profile supporting roles in the gimmicky and gruesome actioner "Crank" (2006), where he incited the creeps with his portrayal of the sweat suit clad doctor who advises a poisoned Jason Statham to maintain high levels of adrenaline if he wants to live. The film cultivated a sizeable cult following and Yoakam was next seen as part of Vince Vaughn's retro "Wild West Comedy Show," a touring variety show hosted by the wiseacre that was released in documentary form in 2006.
In the little-seen female-powered heist movie "Bandidas" (2006) starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, Yoakam had a supporting role as a ne'er do well land baron and went on to earn positive notice for his portrayal of a Texas sheriff in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (2006), which earned a number of awards at the Cannes Film Festival for director and star Tommy Lee Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. He enjoyed a small comedic turn opposite Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as the pastor boyfriend of Witherspoon's mother in the 2008 holiday comedy "Four Christmases" (2008) before reprising his role as the good Doctor in the sequel "Crank 2: High Voltage" (2009) the following spring.
By Susan Clarke
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Learned to play guitar at age six (date approximate)
Reportedly wrote his first song at age nine, "How Far Is Heaven", inspired by news coverage of the Vietnam War (date approximate)
Released first recording, an EP titled "A Town SOuth of Bakersfield"; based on airplay in L.A., was signed by Reprise Records
Released debut album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc."
TV acting debut, guest appearance on the short-lived series "P.S. I Luv You"; had played himself in the pilot for the series
Headlined own special "Dwight Yoakam in Concert" on The Nashville Network
Made feature acting debut in John Dahl's "Red Rock West"
Stage acting debut, "Southern Rapture", directed by Peter Fonda
TV-movie acting debut, "Roswell" (Showtime)
First leading role in a feature, "Painted Hero"
Breakthrough screen role, "Sling Blade", directed by Billy Bob Thornton
Had featured role in "The Newton Boys"
Feature directorial debut, "South of Heaven, West of Hell"; also co-wrote script
Played one of a trio menacing a woman and a child while searching for missing money in "Panic Room"
Served as a producer on the road picture-comedy "Waking Up in Reno", featuring Billy Bob Thornton
Appeared in a small role in the action-comedy "Hollywood Homicide"