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Yoakam to kick off festival shows

Country music star Dwight Yoakam will perform at 7 tonight at the Corn Palace. (Publicity image)

What do you get when you cross honky-tonk, bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, and maybe even a touch of pop or jazz?

Dwight Yoakam.

The longtime country music singer/songwriter will bring his distinctive look and sound tonight to Mitchell's Corn Palace -- a place Yoakam said he is excited to visit.

"Of course I've heard of it," he said. "Never had the pleasure of being booked there."

Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling said a little more than 1,700 tickets have been sold for Yoakam's concert; the capacity for shows this week is about 2,600 to 2,700 seats.

"It's kind of on par," Schilling said. "We'd like to see that number jump and do another 300 to 400 tickets on the day of."

Though classified as a "country" artist, Yoakam has long defied genre boundaries, melding his bluegrass origins with other sounds, from covering Buck Owens' signature honky-tonk tunes to rock band Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" to Yoakam's own collaborations with Kid Rock, Beck and Ashley Monroe on Yoakam's newest album, 3 Pears.

Born in Kentucky, Yoakam moved to Ohio when he was young. He lived there until moving to Nashville for a very short time. Instead of staying in Nashville, like so many other aspiring country music artists, in 1977, the then-20-year-old moved to California. In 1984, he put out his first EP (extended play) album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." which was later re-released as his first studio album in 1986.

"That became the real catalyst for the rest of my career," he said.

Since then, Yoakam has released more than 20 albums. Five have topped Billboard's Country Albums chart, with another 14 landing in the Top 10. More than 30 singles have charted, with 22 going Top 20, including "Honky Tonk Man," "It Only Hurts When I Cry," "Fast as You" and "Thousand Miles from Nowhere."

Yoakam has won two Grammys and is credited with helping to lead the New Traditionalist movement, favoring a bluegrass or honky-tonk flavor over the pop sound prevailing in 1980s country, along with other powerhouses in the country music scene like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs and Reba McEntire.

Though he has been known to wear a suit, the country star's signature look is as distinctive as his sound, and described by his website as "a pale cowboy hat with the brim pulled low" and "poured-on blue jeans." Yoakam said his look, and his sound, are just him being himself.

"That's just how I evolved as a musician, as a singer," Yoakam said.

He said his sound, especially, was influenced by a variety of sources, chief among them the culture into which he was born: the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.

"I was born into the culture that gave the world the Carter family, the Stanley Brothers. There's always been a bluegrass -- or mountain music, if you will -- influence," he said.

Music was always a strong part of his life, with Yoakam saying he got started in country music "at birth."

"For lack of a more accurate way to tell you when and where," he added with a chuckle.

Yoakam's pioneering style has always paid homage to his musical predecessors. His first No. 1 hit, in fact, was "Streets of Bakersfield," Yoakam's duet with country music legend Buck Owens.

"I became aware of Buck's music first on AM Tiger radio," Yoakam said. "I started really exploring and listening to how he created his records, and discovered I had an affinity."

Yoakam recorded a tribute album to Owens, who died in 2006, called "Dwight Sings Buck" in 2007. He credits the "simplistic genius" of the four-piece, honky-tonk band "West Coast country sound" embodied by artists like Owens and fellow legend Merle Haggard.

"I saw how pure that sound remains," Yoakam said.

Yoakam's career has spanned three and a half decades, but the 56-year-old musician said he hasn't grown tired of it.

"I'm lucky to still be doing it," he said.

And his muse, he said, can be almost anything. He cites watching television footage of John Lennon goofing around, circa 1967, wearing three pairs of large, wrap-around movie star sunglasses "in a very mod moment."

"He was so full of life," Yoakam said. "I thought, 'what a tragic thing. There you are John, three pairs of glasses.' "

As the phrase rolled around his brain, Yoakam said it eventually led him to the title track of his latest album, 3 Pears.

"I find inspiration in any given moment that I'm in," Yoakam said. "You never know where you're going to turn and see something as a writer, and I think it's important to be open to inspiration at any moment."

He likes to have fun with his work. Often as unconventional as Yoakam himself, his music videos typically embody that sense of whimsy.

"I love to have fun, especially with music videos," Yoakam said. "From the start I sort of approached music videos as a bit of a magic garden to be able to go explore."

In addition to his many musical accomplishments, Yoakam has established himself as a respected actor. Yoakam said he acted when he was younger but set those ambitions aside after moving to California to focus on his music career.

"I realized actors are at the mercy of opportunity, and I felt that I really wanted to pursue my first love, which was music, fully before I gave up those ambitions," Yoakam said. "I thought, 'maybe I'll have the opportunity to return to performing as an actor later,' and success in the one arena allowed me the opportunity to take acting roles."

From playing Doyle Hargraves in "Sling Blade" to a comedy role in "Wedding Crashers," Yoakam's acting career has shown the same versatility and flexibility as his musical career -- which he enjoys.

"That's the beauty of being an actor. An actor is able to -- unless you're doing a play where you play the same character every night -- be a different character every time," Yoakam said.

Some roles, like his part as a man in the middle of a bitter divorce settlement in "Wedding Crashers," come to him.

"Vince (Vaughn) and Owen (Wilson) invited me to do that. I enjoyed it," Yoakam said. "I give over to whatever the demands of the character are at the time, what the role demands and what the story demands of the role."

And even though he's acted with A-listers and played some of the nation's biggest country music stages, Yoakam said he's excited to see one landmark he hasn't yet -- Mitchell's Corn Palace.

"I look forward to having fun with the audience and playing the historic Corn Palace," he said.

During his show, Yoakam said the audience can plan on hearing music from his new album, but also from his other albums -- and whatever else strikes his fancy.

"They can expect me. And they can expect us to do music that I've made," Yoakam said. "Look for us to do things we don't always plan on. I keep a songbook on stage for that very reason."

Yoakam will perform at 7 tonight at the Corn Palace. Tickets are $45 and are available at the Corn Palace box office at 995-8430.

The Corn Palace Festival continues through Sunday with carnival rides and an outdoor freedom stage downtown, and headliner entertainment in the Corn Palace including comedian Terry Fator on Friday, Craig Morgan with special guest Gloriana on Saturday, and The Happy Together Tour on Sunday.