The years spin along as readily as the miles when Dwight Yoakam starts talking about home.
"Clearly, I'm rummaging through the travelogue memory of my mind here," said the Pikeville-born singer, actor and Kentucky Music Hall of Famer, who stands, critically and commercially, as one of the foremost country music stylists of the past three decades. He returns to his home state for concerts this weekend in Richmond and Ashland.
When the talk focuses on Friday's performance at the EKU Center for the Arts, however, Yoakam shifts from the fabric of Kentucky and West Coast sounds that make up his music to a different public spectacle: football.
"Not to be a little bit of a traitor to Lexington, but I'm going to play down there with the Colonels," the singer said, referring to the EKU Colonels, which won 20 Ohio Valley Conference and two Division I-AA national football championships during his youth. "I'm going to play down there where football is king. All teasing aside, it will be fun to be there."
But it's the Ashland show that will edge Yoakam closer to his roots. Although he spent his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, and has called Los Angeles home for his entire hit-making career, Yoakam knows the roads and haunts of his homeland as keenly as the musical inspirations to which he was introduced there.
"Ashland, of course, holds a lot of memories for me. Naomi Judd and I used to teasingly ask each other who had been to the Bluegrass Drive-In in Ashland last," he said referring to the eatery that closed in 2006. "It was famous for its fries and shakes.
"Our family would stop there coming down Route 23 to go back into Kentucky from Ohio after we moved there. We would cross over into Ashland sometimes late at night. But if the drive-in was open, I would ask my mom to stop there to get stuff that would sometimes prove a precarious item to have in your stomach about an hour later into the drive. We were on a rugged part of that old road. Of course, it's been modernized over the past 20 years. But it was a two-lane serpentine spine of a road at that time that took you all the way to Pikeville. You followed many a coal truck to get there, too. It seemed they were always doing work on that road. There was a time we would have to detour through Blaine, Ky., and cut back.
"When I look back on it, these were some of the most ruggedly beautiful spots of landscape that I've seen in America to this day."
With three decades of hits and critically lauded albums to credit, Yoakam, who turns 57 later this month, has been an ambassador of traditional honky-tonk. But his music also has incorporated elements of California's famed Bakersfield sound, Tex-Mex, mariachi, vintage soul, roots rock and more. The presentation of those sounds has often reflected a touch of Hollywood flair (especially in the videos Yoakam made to promote his hits), but the music has always been devoid of the overt pop intrusions that dominated much of the Nashville product issued concurrently.
For that, he thanks the Appalachian inspirations behind his music, from such early songs as Miner's Prayer, Floyd County and Readin', Rightin' and Route 23 to his 2012 album, 3 Pears, and the anthology 21st Century Hits: Best of 2000-2012 that was released Tuesday.
"Those sounds are inescapable," Yoakam said. "They will never leave me. I mean, 3 Pears clearly has some roots in Appalachia. The sounds I heard as a kid are there. It was often called bluegrass music because of Bill Monroe exporting it to the world from Kentucky. But the region I'm from, which is further east than Bill, is really about Scottish-Irish folk music that came into Appalachia a century before and remained there. It was what Ralph Stanley would affectionately call 'mountain music.' The Carter Family and all those folks were from just across that blurry border there between Grundy, Virginia, and Pike County, Kentucky. That is always going to be a part of my musical thread."
The Kentucky-bred source material of Yoakam's songs has never wavered, but the audience has. Granted, 3 Pears reawakened interest in his music in country circles. But the record also became the highest charting album of his career on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart and helped Yoakam take honors as Artist of the Year last month at the Americana Music Honors and Awards.
"The day of the awards ceremony, I was way up on the other corner of the continent. We were playing up in northern British Columbia. You're much closer to the Yukon than you are the continental United States up there. I was heartbroken when I found out that I won and wasn't able to be there in person, because I've had a great year with the Americana chart format and the radio stations around the country that program that music.
"It's funny. Everything has almost come full circle for me. Breaking out on what was considered Americana radio back in 1984 and '85 launched my career. That led to Warner Nashville signing me, having those early hits with Honky Tonk Man (Yoakam's debut single from 1986) and, eventually, the career I had at commercial country radio."
That isn't all that has come full circle for Yoakam. This year he has played the decidedly non-country gathering at Bonnaroo. Next weekend, he will share a concert bill at the Cask and Drum Festival in Birmingham, Ala., with the likes of Shovels and Rope, Railroad Earth and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Such venues recall Yoakam's early days in Los Angeles, when his concerts favored the day's punk bands as co-stars over other country acts.
"It was an eclectic mix," he said of those shows. "That's why the term 'cowpunk' was applied to it, because there were a lot of former punk bands in 1981, '82 and '83 that decided there was a version of California 'country' music they wanted to rediscover. We were playing that scene with bands like Tex and the Horseheads, Los Cruzados and, of course, X, the famous punk standard-bearers for Los Angeles during the late '70s. Los Lobos was playing the scene at the time. So were The Blasters — just a variety of bands."
"Mostly, I think it's all just a matter of paying attention to your audience. That's why we were booked into things like Bonnaroo. Hey, it's gratifying to have anybody listening to your music."
Beyond the swagger, the image, the face half-buried by a cowboy hat, there was the music. Here are contributing critic Walter Tunis' picks of the best albums, original tunes and cover material that have made Dwight Yoakam the most innovative country stylist since Merle Haggard.
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1984/1986). When Yoakam states his claim as a "honky-tonk man" in the album-opening cover of a Johnny Horton classic, you can't help but be convinced. Nashville-meets-West Coast country tradition had found its new ambassador.
Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room (1988) With his stardom secured, Yoakam's third album dove to greater emotive depths with its songwriting and took greater stylistic chances with its production, yet it remained loyal to country tradition.
This Time (1993). One of Yoakam's biggest commercial hits, This Time typified the creative groove that Yoakam struck with then-producer Pete Anderson. The record was alternately orchestral and intimate, celebratory and dour, poker-faced and whimsical. A master work.
Gone (1995) In a perhaps controversial choice, Yoakam and Anderson built on the mammoth popularity of This Time with songs accented by everything from Mariachi horns to orchestrated '60s soul. A true sleeper of an album.
3 Pears(2012). The best of Yoakam's post-Anderson albums had a reinvigorated guitar sound, quietly devastating ballads and a seriously rocking cover of the standard Dim Lights, Thick Smoke. Curiously, 3 Pears became a Top 20 hit on non-country charts.
BEST ORIGINAL SONGS
I Sang Dixie. An elegant, proud but devastatingly sad honky-tonk eulogy. This is what happens when the bottle really lets you down.
Miner's Prayer. A postcard from Yoakam's Eastern Kentucky past: a subtle, dignified family elegy with a neo-bluegrass cast.
Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses). A profoundly stark and sad Yoakam yarn that essentially re-wrote the book on country misery.
Nothing. A rumbling heartbreak anthem fortified by stings and twang. The results: a sweeping serenade of Brook Benton-style soul.
A Thousand Miles From Nowhere. A grand, arid blast of country desperation that represented the best-arranged hit from Yoakam's years with Pete Anderson.
Long White Cadillac. A full serving of roots rock joy written by Dave Alvin that stands, arguably, as Yoakam's greatest radio hit.
Carmelita. A dramatically despondent vocal turn from Yoakam, the downward-spiral lyrics of Warren Zevon and the spry Mexicali accordion of Flaco Jiménez — what a summit.
Streets of Bakersfield. A slice of classic California country by Buck Owens ,reborn as a Tex-Mex duet with Owens himself.
Little Sister. A 1961 Elvis Presley hit written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman recast as an electric shuffle, with wicked picking from producer Anderson.
Suspicious Minds. Another Presley hit (from 1969), this Mark James song became a tastefully glammed-up display of vintage country soul.
IF YOU GO
■ 7:30 Oct. 4. EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond. $50.50-$70.50. (859) 622-7469. EKUcenter.com.
■ 8 p.m. Oct. 5. Paramount Arts Center, 1300 Winchester Ave., Ashland. $35-$55. (606) 324-3175. Paramountartscenter.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.