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Classic Tracks: Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield”

It’s still pretty surprising that Dwight Yoakam became a country music star. He was playing working-class bars and punk clubs in L.A., performing his original songs and classic-country covers for old-schoolers and college kids at a time when the hits coming out of Nashville were lush, overproduced

It’s still pretty surprising that Dwight Yoakam became a country music star. He was playing working-class bars and punk clubs in L.A., performing his original songs and classic-country covers for old-schoolers and college kids at a time when the hits coming out of Nashville were lush, overproduced—more pop than country. Yet with his fist wrapped around the torch passed by the pioneers of the Bakersfield sound—Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens—Yoakam and his producer/guitarist Pete Anderson managed to turn a throwback approach into hit after hit.

Yoakam and Anderson were leading sort of parallel lives, playing a lot of the same venues in L.A.’s roots-punk scene in the early ’80s, but they didn’t meet until a mutual acquaintance, steel guitarist Bob “Boo” Bernstein, suggested Anderson check out the act then known as Dwight Yoakam & The Kentucky Bourbons. “Boo said, ‘[Dwight’s] got this guitar player called Jerry McGee,’” Anderson says. “Jerry had played with The Ventures and a lot of other people, and being a curious guitar player, I thought, ‘I’d love to hear Jerry McGee.’”

Bernstein gave Anderson a tape of Yoakam’s material, and Anderson recognized that Yoakam had written some really strong songs. Then, “Out of the blue, I was playing with the same steel player, and he invited Dwight to sit in at a club we were playing at in the West Valley,” Anderson says. “He sang a couple of Merle Haggard songs, which I knew the licks to, and at the same time he’d had sort of a falling out with his guitarist.”

Yoakam asked if Anderson would play a gig that he had coming up. That first gig turned into many more, and when they had some really solid arrangements of Yoakam’s originals and several covers, they raised $5,000 to make an EP called Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc. in Brian Levi’s Excalibur studio in Studio City, Calif.

“Then Warner Bros. came to the party and signed us, turned it into an album with four more songs, and the record sold 2 million copies,” Anderson says. Yoakam’s recording b

udget also went up a bit.
“He’d cut that EP on spec or partly on a credit card,” engineer Dusty Wakeman recalls, “but when I came on board and we cut the four other songs to turn the EP into an album, that was the first time we went to Capitol.” At that time, Wakeman owned and operated Mad Dog Studios in Venice, Calif., and had met Anderson when the two worked together recording the first Town South of Bakersfield album—a seminal record in the history of country music in L.A.

Capitol Studios (Hollywood) hosted sessions for Yoakam’s first three albums: Guitars, Cadillacs (1986), Hillbilly Deluxe (’87) and Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room (’88), which includes “Streets of Bakersfield.” Wakeman engineered those first three albums and beyond. He says Yoakam had enough material written for all three records before sessions began, so Yoakam and Anderson planned ahead to create a balanced track list for three albums. When they were tracking to flesh out the EP, Wakeman says, “We felt like, any day, some adult’s going to throw us out of here: ‘What are you kids doing in here? Get out!’ Pete and I were like, ‘Wow, look at us! We’re at Capitol!’”

Yoakam, Anderson and the band went on the road to promote Guitars, Cadillacs, and it was during this time, as his own career began to really build steam, that Yoakam managed to coax the legendary Buck Owens—then in his mid-’50s—out of premature retirement. “Dwight met Buck at the radio station [owned by Owens] in Bakersfield, and somehow he got Buck to sit in at a fair or something,” Anderson recalls.

Dwight Yoakam (right) with his hero Buck Owens

Owens apparently enjoyed Yoakam’s friendship and admiration because he agreed to more performances with the band, and it was Owens who suggested that the two singers cut the Homer Joy song “Streets of Bakersfield” as a duet. The song was slated for album number three, with a new arrangement by Anderson. “When Dwight and I played clubs,” Anderson says, “I would sing occasionally. He would take a break, and I would sing a tune, and I used to do a song called ‘Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?’ which is a Charley Pride song, but I did it as a Tex-Mex polka sort of thing, and I thought it would be a cool way to do the Owens song because if you do a polka, everybody gets up and dances.” The arrangement also captured something essential in the song’s meaning: a sense of walking in the shoes of a newcomer looking for a better life in California.

By the time the team went to Capitol for the third time—to make Buenos Noches—they’d grown pretty comfortable in Studio B. “It was like a second home,” Wakeman says. “Plus, the two guys who worked with me over the years there, Charlie Paakari and Pete Doell, who were supposedly my ‘assistants,’ were way better engineers than I was at that time. I was also smart enough to ask them for advice. Charlie was my assistant for the first three albums. So when they would ask me, ‘How do you want to mike the drums?’ I would answer, ‘Well, what works well for you in this room?’ because those guys were there every day.’”

Wakeman recalls that drummer Jeff Donovan’s kit would have been miked “with [Telefunken] 251s for overheads, and they probably would have been [Sennheiser] 421s on toms and a [Shure] SM57 and an original [AKG] 451 with a pad on the snare and a 451 on the hat. We had one [AKG] C24 out in the room and a couple more room mics, probably U67s. But there was always a C24 up. The vocal would have been a [Neumann] U47 on Dwight and one on Buck. We probably used a 47 on fiddle and one on accordion.”

Wakeman says Buenos Noches was cut to Studer A800 machines: “I think we cut basics to 16-track and then synched up a 24 for overdubs.” All the basics were cut live in the way that Owens and his Buckaroos would have cut their songs 10 or 20 years before. And the ever-modest Wakeman, who by this time had become an in-demand engineer with a wealth of knowledge and appreciation for old and new technologies, still sounds like a kid in a candy store talking about Capitol Studios: “The A800s were the best. They had that awesome Neve 8068 that just everything sounded good through, and I remember we had an early Focusrite mic pre and EQ—one of the original Rupert Neve ones. We cut a lot of overdubs through that. And, of course, you know, Capitol’s got those eight incredible live echo chambers that should be made a national shrine that are underneath the parking lot. They all have different sounds and different shapes, and we used them on fiddles and accordion and vocals on ‘Streets of Bakersfield.’”

There was, however, an issue when it came time to record those vocals: “We were in a hurry to get Dwight’s vocal done because Buck was coming in and we needed Dwight’s to be complete,” Wakeman says. “I think we’d done five passes. In those days, Pete would sit at the console and I would run the remote, and we would do the comp. But we would do it by him marking on the lyric sheet and I would put it together later. Somehow, his numbers got off from my numbers—like we would keep the first two passes so maybe I would say [the others were] three through eight, but he called them one to five. I knew we had a great vocal in there, and Buck was on his way, and we thought, ‘We’ll put it together in the morning right before Buck comes in.’ Buck was supposed to be there at 11, and so at 10 Charlie and I were bouncing the vocal together, but somehow it doesn’t sound good. It was the wrong take. It was the worst instead of the best, and by the time we figured out what must have happened, Buck and Dwight walk in the room, ready to start singing.

“But we didn’t want to look like idiots,” he continues, “so I called Pete aside and told him what happened, and said, ‘You’ve got to stall them!’ So he goes out into the room and just starts asking Buck to tell stories while we frantically put the right vocal together. It took us 20 minutes with Pete stalling, and they never knew.”

The accordion part was performed by Norteño legend Flaco Jimenez in Capitol Studio C after the rest of the track was completed. Anderson describes Jimenez as “the Jimi Hendrix of Norteño accordion. Flaco just rolls with the wind. I played him the track, and he was like, ‘I know this groove,’ and started playing.”

“Flaco is a one-take player. If he feels it, it’ll be perfect, right off the bat,” concurs Wakeman, who has worked with Jimenez several times since they recorded “Streets of Bakersfield.” The engineer also continued to run Mad Dog in a couple of different incarnations and locations until last year when he became president of Mojave Audio. He can still be talked into playing or engineering for a longtime friend such as Pete Anderson, whose association with Yoakam lasted through 2003. These days, Anderson runs his own Little Dog Records label and Dog Bone Studio, as well as producing and playing on others’ records.

Owens passed away four years ago, but at least in part thanks to Yoakam, his comeback career continued for years after the two artists recorded together. He made another album for Capitol in 1989 and toured with and without Yoakam. When he wasn’t on the road, Owens performed weekly at his Crystal Palace club in Bakersfield until his last gig, just hours before his passing.

Yoakam is now known as a film actor as well as a singer/songwriter. Back in ’88, “Streets of Bakersfield” was a Number One country single, and Buenos Noches went to Number One on the country album charts. He hasn’t released an album in a few years; his most recent is the 2007 release, Dwight Sings Buck.