It wasn’t exactly the role of a lifetime.
But for alt-country kingpin and part-time thespian Dwight Yoakam, it was a real career coup: a juicy cameo in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming "Batman Begins" sequel "The Dark Knight."
"And actually, there were a couple of different parts," says the Renaissance man. "There was a ne’er-do-well cop who’s one of Gary Oldman’s guys, but I really couldn’t focus enough to deal with that. Then they came back to me and said ‘We know you don’t have time to do that one, but can you do this one instead?’ And it was a banker who had dealings with the Joker, and I wanted so badly to go do that banker and mess around with [Joker portrayer] Heath Ledger. But I just couldn’t do it."
Yoakam had a serious reason for avoiding Gotham City. He was knee-deep in Bakersfield. Or, more accurately, the legendary Bakersfield Sound created by his late friend and mentor, Buck Owens, to whom he was respectfully devoting an entire album of cover songs.
It was worth the determination; "Dwight Sings Buck," out next Tuesday on New West, is a loving homage to one of country’s most underrated pioneers. Yoakam pours his heart into every note of Owens’ catalog classics like "Cryin’ Time," "Together Again" and "Act Naturally." He appears on "The Tonight Show" Friday to croon the set’s first single, a Calypso reworking of "Close Up the Honky Tonks."
"I just couldn’t do ‘Batman’ because I was so involved in Buck’s album, or my album about Buck," the L.A. native says. "And it’s an ironic twist on Buck and myself, and his always being cantankerous about me doing movies. He’d go ‘Your music’s going to suffer because you’re ignoring it!’ And I’d say ‘No, I won’t ignore it, Buck — I promise!’"
Yoakam hadn’t expected to delve so deeply into the project. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, he first saw Owens hosting his weekly variety show "Hee-Haw"; once he started playing his own brand of revivalist C&W, he even was guest on the program, in 1986, a few months after Owens had retired.
But the pair would cross paths in ’88, when Yoakam dragged his elder into a surprise No. 1-hit cover of his vintage "Streets of Bakersfield"; they were close friends from that duet on. And a year ago last March, when Yoakam heard, mid-tour, that Owens had passed on, he knew an especially reverent elegy was required.
"So this album evolved out of my playing a medley of four of Buck’s songs in concert," says the star, who still gets choked up discussing his old chum. "And I’d never really recorded any of his material, other than ‘Streets’ and ‘Under Your Spell Again,’ which I re-recorded with him. I never touched anything of Buck’s, because I never wanted to feel in any way that I’d usurped his right of ownership of that material — Buck was doing it just fine, up until the night he died. It was an outgrowth of my relationship with him —part friend, part sibling, part parent-child, although it was often hard to determine who was the parent and who was the child."
As soon as Yoakam returned from the road, he and his backing band raced into the studio to cut their 15-track tribute. "And I didn’t expect what happened making this record to happen," he recalls. "The album ambushed me at odd moments, from peculiar angles while I was recording. I would think about Buck and what we’d done with a particular track, and think about he would react. And I think he’d be pleased with this. Or at least I hope he would."