Photo: Randee St. Nicolas
Dwight Yoakam has had dozens of hit records, but what’s maybe more impressive is the way he’s managed to cruise up the mainstream but never lose credibility as an authentic country artist. He’s as likely to win a pile of Americana Music Association awards for his new album 3 Pears (Warner Bros.) as he is to take home trophies from the CMAs, and he’d deserve them all: 3 Pears is gritty enough for the Outlaw crowd and bright enough for radio. Musically and sonically, it’s a thing of beauty.
This album marks Yoakam’s major-label return, and his first album of original songs since 2005, but some of the material dates back even further. “Track one [“Take Hold of My Hand”], I had the basic chorus and opening laying around unfinished for 20 years,” Yoakam says. “Kid Rock and I had threatened to do something together, and he asked me to come out to his place. I happened to find this thing, and I went, ‘I haven’t thought about that in years!’”
The record includes other high-profile collaborations: “Never Alright” was co-writen with Ashley Monroe (lately of Pistol Annies), and the first two tracks to be recorded for the album—“A Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart”—were co-produced by Beck. That pair were tracked with the help of engineers Cole Marsden Greif Neill, Cassidy Turbin and Darrell Thorp.
“After that we started some tracking with Joe Chiccarelli at EastWest,” Yoakam explains, “but Joe’s schedule didn’t allow him to complete the album, so Joe recommended Marc DeSisto, and Marc stayed with me till the album got finished.”
Photo: Randee St. Nicolas
DeSisto (marcdesisto.com), whose credits include stellar work for Chris Isaak, Robin Trower and U2 to name a few, took over the Pro Tools 24/96 rig at EastWest, which is where they developed one of the updated and defining sounds of the record:
“This album was maybe the first time in my career that I played electric rhythm [guitar],” Yoakam says. “We were fighting a little bit with the sound, though, and at one point, we looked up and Marc had these Coles ribbon mics for ambience in the room. Marc said, ‘we could pull those,’ and I remembered that in some of the Recording the Beatles pictures, they’re using those mics.”
“Dwight was playing a Casino guitar into a [hot-rodded] Vox AC30 amp or a Fender Super Reverb,” DeSisto recalls. “We agreed to try the Coles on the Vox, and I put it up, right in the center of the cone, maybe about four inches away. This was one of the experiences I know I’ll always remember with an artist, because he hit a chord, and instantly said, ‘Oh my God, that’s it. Don’t touch it.’ That became the guitar sound on the entire album.”
Some sounds, however, you don’t mess with: “Dwight’s vocal chain was always a U 47 into a Telefunken V76 tube pre that Dwight owns—that shows up and it’s the first thing I patch in—and I always use a Pultec and a Fairchild on the bus because as I’m recording it, I like to ride the vocal.”
Tracking happened in fits and starts over a nine-month period, so EastWest was not always available when the band was. One track was recorded at Sunset Sound, one at Paramount, and a handful were done at Henson Studios, where DeSisto was a longtime staff engineer.
“Marc knew where everything was hidden up in the old storage attic as far as old analog equipment,” Yoakam says. “He’d rummage around, and we’d come back from dinner and he’d go, ‘They’ve got a Cooper Time Cube. We gotta use this.’”
The Cooper Time Cube actually became one of the album’s secret weapons. “It’s basically a hose in a box, from the early ’60s,” DeSisto says. “It was used as a kind of pre-delay, which is not very long, but it makes a whooshing, booming sound that’s like nothing else. When we did overdubs on ‘Missing Heart,’ we were looking for an effect, and I remembered as a kid listening to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ and later finding out that the engineer [Roy Halee] was hitting the plate with his hands to make that big boom. So we asked the assistant, Kevin Mills, who’s also a drummer, to hit the Cooper; that boom on the record is him hitting the Cooper into a plate or chamber.”
All ideas were welcome on 3 Pears; Yoakam says this project was one of his most collaborative, with sounds and arrangements growing from give and take in the studio. “‘Waterfall’ is a great example,” he says. “We were at Paramount, and I showed [the players] the song. We kept trying different things, and then Jonathan Clark on bass did a little choked kind of gliss—just a two-note thing like a pulse—and I said, ‘That’s cool, stay on it.’ That became the bed of the verse.
"Then Mitch [Marine] did something that was very tribal on the drums, and I said, ‘Hey, we stole a little bit from The Beatles, let’s steal more. Let’s put towels over the drums—go beyond dead with the drum sound. So we covered the drums. Then I stopped playing guitar and instinctively thought, I need to just sing it with those two. That led to a wonderful happy magic garden to explore. By the second verse there’s an organ pad that Brian Whelan’s playing—really a growl—and then on the B section, he comes in with kind of a lullaby piano answer. When it comes to arrangements, I always have some kind of plan, but you never know until the day. It helps to have musicians who are capable enough to let go of the orthodox approach.”
For a complete Q&A with Dwight, CLICK HERE.