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Hats off to Buck

Special to The Times

DWIGHT YOAKAM is not driving the tractor, he’s just sitting on it, hunkered all alone under a bright blue sky tinged with a hint of encroaching twilight. Wearing faded overalls and a red Shell trucker cap, he gazes pensively at a sprawling modern ranch house off to his right. Beyond him are fields crosshatched by white picket fences, dotted with oak trees and ringed by shadowy mountains.

The scene is forlorn and a little unsettling -- just what the singer-songwriter wants for his video for “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” a country classic recorded by Buck Owens in 1964. It’s the first single from “Dwight Sings Buck,” his tribute to the late singer, songwriter and business mogul, due Oct. 23. The romantic lament is slower and more doleful than Owens’ spunky version; the effect Yoakam and director Fred Durst are after is what both call “minimalist loneliness.”

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So close up the honky tonks

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Lock all the doors

Don’t let the one I love go there any more

Close up the honky tonks

Throw away the key

Then maybe the one I love will come back to me.

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“It’s about the emptiness at the end of a relationship, in this case specifically the aloneness of living with someone you no longer really share a love with,” Yoakam explains about the video’s concept during a break in shooting at this rustic-yet-luxe wood-and-stone home in Westlake Village.

Obliging a photographer, he’s now dressed in proper country-singer attire: near-fatally tight faded jeans, white shirt with sparkly cuff links, denim jacket, gorgeous tan cowboy boots embellished with the ace of spades. “It’s just the ghost of a love.”

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As the farmer, whose name is Shell, in this “metaphorical story,” Yoakam spends much of the day conjuring up the contemplative resignation of a man haunted by the absence of his once-happy marriage.

But the singer-songwriter himself is preoccupied by different memories -- reminded in his solitude on the tractor, in the bathroom, at the dinner table, of Owens, his close friend who at age 76 died in his sleep on March 25 last year after performing that night in his Bakersfield nightclub/museum, the Crystal Palace.

The tribute is “a way for me to say I loved him, and I loved his music,” Yoakam, 50, says. Their relationship was “part friend, part sibling, and a whole lot surrogate parent.” Their lives had intertwined since 1988, when Yoakam, then a newly minted hit-maker, talked his idol out of retirement to duet on Owens’ signature “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Yoakam’s first No. 1 country single.

Although Yoakam has proved adept with a variety of roots and rock genres, his style drew much from the honky-tonkin’ Bakersfield sound that Owens pioneered. Still, he had never recorded any other Buck tunes and hadn’t planned to, until Owens’ death prompted this album.

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Recording it proved fraught with unexpected emotion.

“I was over the shock of Buck being gone, but I didn’t realize that I’d be so haunted during the process of making the record,” says Yoakam, who began work on “Dwight Sings Buck” about nine months after Owens died and in the wake of a long world tour. “And there are moments today that I feel a little bit haunted by Buck.”

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A personal touch

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The daylong shoot is running behind, as crew members hustle to set up and tear down different scenes, and peripheral concerns such as media interviews interrupt the flow. Carrying his silver thermos of tea like a talisman, Yoakam is calm and intensely focused, yet slightly distant, at once in the moment and far, far away.

Although “Dwight Sings Buck” includes faithful renditions of the wry “Act Naturally” and the rollicking “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “Close Up the Honky Tonks” is among the tracks Yoakam puts his own stamp on. Changed from Owens’ up-tempo shuffle to an expansive, mid-tempo ballad evoking ‘70s Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers, with perhaps a touch of Merle Haggard melancholy, it has an undercurrent of quiet despair.

Durst immediately envisioned a slightly surreal scenario to represent that mood. “My goal is to get Dwight to act in the video, not just be the [musical] performer, and he hasn’t done that” in his previous videos, says the Limp Bizkit frontman turned director. “He was purposely not mixing the two. So this is pretty exciting for me, because I think he has a lot of presence.”

The erstwhile rap-metal king has directed videos for his own band as well as for acts including Korn, Staind and Puddle of Mudd, but recently he’s concentrated on features. In May, his directorial debut, “The Education of Charlie Banks,” won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed, Durst wanted to do this video because he’s recruiting Yoakam the actor for his next film project. (The singer-songwriter has appeared in such films as “Wedding Crashers,” “Panic Room,” and “Sling Blade.”)

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They share an agent at the William Morris Agency, and that’s how Yoakam learned of Durst’s abilities.

“It was void of ego,” the musician says of “Charlie Banks” with a small laugh, “and that was what was really amazing to me, from a directing standpoint. He got such honest performances out of the actors that I was blown away.”

Their initial 90-minute meeting turned into a six-hour brainstorming session, says Yoakam, who’s mostly directed his own videos and is co-producing this one. “I found out a lot of things I had no idea about Fred Durst,” he says. “He was born and raised in North Carolina, grew up with a mother who was a country singer and played Buck Owens songs.”

Durst confirms that he is “a fan, because I just grew up listening to him with my parents and my grandparents,” even if he doesn’t have that same “spiritual or emotional connection with Buck Owens” as Pikeville, Ky.-born Yoakam.

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He’s noticed the effect that Yoakam’s bond with Owens is having today. “It’s all pretty powerful, it’s emotional.”

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Thoughts of Owens

Anyone who has lost a mentor, a friend, a parent, can understand how they come back to you even at unexpected times. So naturally Yoakam would be inundated by memories now. But he isn’t really sad: He recalls with a smile how he and his band joked and laughed daily in the studio about what Buck would think of their work.

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Just four days before Owens died, they’d had a rambling four-hour phone conversation that took on great significance for Yoakam.

“We hadn’t talked at length about things -- other than if I was gonna play the [Crystal] Palace or he was gonna come somewhere, like when I got my star on the Walk of Fame, we’d share those moments.

“He sounded great,” Yoakam recalls, “and he was really reminiscing about his life -- he was talking about writing his memoirs.”

Owens mentioned an autograph someone had asked him to get from Yoakam, and the younger man joked that people seemed to think they were neighbors. “He laughed and said, ‘I guess, Dwight, we’ll just always be linked.’ That was almost the last thing we said together.”

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At least, surely then, he has no regrets about leaving anything unsaid?

“No,” he says emphatically. “No, no, no, none.” He pauses and gazes to the side.

“I wish he could hear it.” The reverie creeps into his blue eyes. Then he smiles, back in the moment, preparing to climb into his overalls once again and onto the tractor. “I think he would’ve had fun with this record.”


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