Kentucky-born Dwight Yoakam’s 1987 video for “Little Sister” highlights Night Flight’s “Take Off to Country Jam”

By on October 3, 2016

“Tonight we’ll bring you the tastiest licks in our fresh country jam, the sweetest sounds from the back roads and honky tonks around the country..” says Night Flight announcer Pat Prescott at the beginning of our “Take Off to Country Jam” before listing off the artists whose videos be making an appearance in the episode, including Dwight Yoakam, who Ms. Prescott describes as a “… long, lean Kentucky mountain man… whose hot cowpunk rock bridges the gap between country and rock.”

Watch “Take Off to Country Jam” — which originally aired on June 12, 1987 — on Night Flight Plus!

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In the first video up in our “Take Off,” Yoakam launches into “Little Sister” — a track off his second album, Hillbilly Deluxe — which was a raunchy little rocker about dating your ex’s younger sibling (“Little sister, don’t you do what your big sister done”).

The song had originally been a top five hit for Elvis Presley in 1961, on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart, when Yoakam was just four years old.

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At the time this “Take Off” episode aired, the Hillbilly Deluxe album hadn’t yet been released (July 7th was the official street date), but Yoakam’s video for the platter’s first single was already being sent out to television shows like “Night Flight” in advance, and we were only too happy to give Yoakam’s updated-yet-faithful to the original version of the Mort Shuman/Doc Pomus-penned tune the airtime on our weekend cable TV show (the single, incidentally, wound up climbing to #7 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs list that year, missing Elvis’ original placement on the pop charts by two slots).

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The video, it should be noted, was directed by Sherman Halsey, who had discovered and managed an unknown Dwight Yoakam — his father, Jim Halsey, had manged the Oak Ridge Boys — guiding his career through its earliest days which would involve both management ideas, and marketing skills, which would of course mean he had a hand in Yoakam’s videos early on.

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Halsey had already produced and directed two earlier Yoakam music videos, one for his cover version of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and one for an original, “Guitars, Cadillacs,” both released a year earlier, in 1986.

That last one had been the title track of his official debut album for Warner Bros./Reprise, Guitars, Cadillacs, which had featured six tracks he’d previously recorded in 1984 for his first independently-produced release, an EP.

Yoakam had indeed been born in Kentucky, in the coal-mining community of Pikeville, located in the Appalachian Mountains along a fork of the Big Sandy River.

It’s the setting of some of those Hatfield-McCoy feuds you may have heard about — they still have an annual “Hillbilly Days” festival there, celebrating the best of Appalachian culture — but Yoakam didn’t spend all that much time there; soon after his birth his family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he became interested in acting, appearing in numerous high school plays.

He also started playing guitar from the age of six, and spent his teens to figure out which direction he wanted to go further down the road, towards acting or music.

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He went to Ohio State University, but dropped out before graduating, and by 1977 had made the decision that he wanted to play country music (he ended up taking both paths).

He moved to Nashville to give it a try, but by then, his love for the more traditional-based honky tonk Bakersfield country sound was out of step with the more popular and profitable sound of crossover country-pop.

When he knocked on doors in Music City, wearin’ a Stetson and carryin’ an acoustic guitar, he found there was no answer.

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Yoakam — who soon had hooked up with a fellow traveler, Pete Anderson, a producer and shit-hot lead guitarist he’d met in Nashville — began westering, all the way to Los Angeles, which isn’t that far from Bakersfield, home of his biggest musical influences and idols, including Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart (and as it turned out, probably ninety-percent of the artists considered the progenitors of the “Bakersfield Sound” actually recorded in Hollywood, at the studios at Capitol Records stack o’ wax tower on Vine Street).

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In just a few years, as the new decade of the 1980s dawned, Yoakam (with Anderson and a pretty good little band) found himself playing sets of honky tonk songs in L.A. punk clubs, becoming part of the city’s burgeoning “cowpunk” scene, where both traditional and outlaw country artists of the 70s were being embraced by punk and rockabilly bands and the crowds that came to see them all play in grubby little joints like the Anti-Club on Melrose — that’s where your humble author saw Yoakam and his band play, many times — on bills with bands like the Blasters, Rank & File, Lone Justice and Los Lobos.

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The “long, lean Kentucky mountain man” fit right in with those bands, surprisingly, and riding up on a motorcycle to his gigs, wearing a leather jacket before changing into clothes for the stage — tight, bootcut Levis, untucked long-sleeve western yoked shirts and short embroidered western jackets, topped off with a big ol’ Stetson — he was just about as punk as anyone in that scene, really.

By 1982, with some financial help from a couple of relatives, money from a benefit show he’d helped to organize at UCLA and an auto insurance check that he was supposed use to fix his El Camino, he soon had enough cash in the ol’ cookie jar to pay for recording his first batch of songs, which were ultimately released on an EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. , which would come out in ’84 on the independent Oak record label.

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Yoakam hit the road opening for Los Lobos and Violent Femmes, likely confusing a lot of their fans and ultimately winning a ton of them over with his covers and originals both, and in 1985, after talking with a host of record labels who sent A&R dudes and their scouts to those L.A. punk clubs to check him out, he ultimately signed with Warner Bros. Records’ recently-revived Reprise imprint.

Reprise issued his first album, the truncated-titled Guitars, Cadillacs in 1986, featuring six songs he’d previously recorded for that now-hard-to-find EP, including the title track, an semi-autobiographical tune about his time in Los Angeles.

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Yoakam won praise from both rock and country critics (in interviews, Yoakam still preferred to call the music he played “hillbilly”), and soon his constant airplay on college and community radio stations caught the ear of bigger country stations.

He was soon enjoying his first hits, with “Honky Tonk Man” (#3 in the spring of ’86) and he also hit #4 with his album’s title track, with music videos directed by Sherman Halsey helping to push the album to its ultimate platinum status, the first of three consecutive No. 1 Billboard Country Albums for him.

Three of its tracks rose into the Top 40 of the Hot Country Singles chart in 1986.

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Hillbilly Deluxe, Yoakam’s sophomore album for Reprise, spawned four Top Ten Hits: besides “Little Sister,” his singles “Little Ways,” “Please, Please Baby” and “Always Late with Your Kisses” all charted.

We’ve always been particularly fond of his Elvis cover, though, and the video Halsey shot for it — with its scenes of sexy, dancing girls in cages and forlorn-looking black-and-white cowboy-themed scenarios — which you can see in its entirety in our “Take Off to Country Jam.”

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Sherman Halsey

Sherman Halsey — who would go on to direct award-winning videos for other artists too, including Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, with whom he would work on many of the country singer’s concert TV specials for NBC — died suddenly in 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee, at age fifty-six.

Watch our “Take Off to Country Jam” — also featuring videos by Ricky Skaggs, k.d. lang, Hank Williams Jr. and many more — on our Night Flight Plus channel!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.