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Dwight Yoakam

In the late 1970s, a young Dwight Yoakam showed up on the Los Angeles music scene around the same time as a music fad inspired by the hit movie "Urban Cowboy." As if John Travolta were the King of All Cool Things, trendsters dutifully traded in their "Saturday Night Fever" disco lycra for Tony Lama boots and brand-new Stetsons.

Yoakam, a college dropout born in the Kentucky hill country, certainly looked the part, which was, he soon found out, a good thing and a bad thing. His looks — the painted-on jeans, the perfectly positioned cowboy hat — got him jobs. But his sound lost him those same jobs.

"Every fern bar had turned into a country nightclub," remembered Yoakam, the headliner at Saturday's Monterey Americana Music Festival. "And I realized that after I got hired and then fired in a succession of nightclub gigs that it was because I wasn't playing the top 10 commercial tracks popular on the radio. A lot of that stuff was just no longer country anyway. It was the beginning of '80s pop country and I just couldn't do it. I had too much Bill Monroe hollerin' in me. That's just part of my DNA."

These days, Yoakam, 57, is a widely recognized pioneer of alternative country and neo-honky tonk, a hugely successful star who earned his stripes by coloring outside the lines of Nashville's hidebound ways. In the rich but often overlooked subgenre of California country, after paying due deference to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, Yoakam's name always rises to the surface.


But back then, he was just another rhinestone cowboy. Before long, however, even though the "Urban Cowboy" thing had been played out, Yoakam was going even deeper into the country sound. Inspired by everything from the hillbilly keening of the Stanley Brothers to the honky tonk of the Bakersfield sound, Yoakam took to playing clubs that usually hosted punk bands. And there, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, he found an audience.

"I was blessed to be around when a lot of young former punk musicians — whose moms and dads were listening to that kind of music in their cars because a lot of them were second-generation Okies, Arkies and Texans — felt compelled to revisit that legacy of California culture," said Yoakam.

Other classic American musical genres were also beginning to get traction in the early 1980s such as rockabilly, best exemplified by the Blasters featuring brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, and Billy Zoom who went on to found X, the quintessential L.A. alt band of the era. Soon, Yoakam was at the very center of the "cowpunk" movement, a burgeoning musical culture that defied commercialism with a new emphasis on authenticity to American traditions, a culture that made stars out of such acts as the Blasters, Lone Justice and Los Lobos.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Yoakam's breakout album, an EP version of "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.," an album later expanded and released as his major-label debut in 1986. With his plaintive, yodel-break vocals and his insistence on staying true to the honky tonk ethic, a sound he called "Hillbilly Deluxe, Yoakam exploded in popularity in the 1980s. His string of hits — "I Sang Dixie," "She Wore Red Dresses," "Streets of Bakersfield" (a duet with his idol Buck Owens) — are among the best country songs of the late decades of the 20th century.

"It was a vortex," said Yoakam of the rich 1980s Los Angeles scene. "There's only so much you can do on your own and then let fate take over. But you do have to be willing to persevere to allow time to catch up. It took me nine years after I got (to L.A.) before I enjoyed some success, which was a long time from when I rode out here in a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. Just like they told Jed Clampett, 'This is the place you gotta be.'"

If you go

What: Monterey Americana Music Festival, featuring Dwight Yoakam, Antsy McClain & the Trailer Park Troubadours, Jim Lauderdale, Hollow Wood and Casey Frazier

When: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Monterey County Fair and Event Center, 2004 Fairground Road, Monterey

Tickets: $30-$75