Writing a book can go so wrong in so many ways that it’s amazing when it turns out so right. I’m thinking here of logistical complications rather than quality, though I am proud of Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, particularly since the whole project threatened to crash and burn before it even took off.
(Ed note: Full disclosure, McLeese is a contributing writer for Kirkus).
I was checking messages before boarding my flight to Los Angeles to interview Yoakam when I heard an urgent one from his manager, Laura McCorkindale: Please call me as soon as you get this. I’d never spoken with her before, but we’d spent about six months arranging this interview, exchanging e-mails, becoming Facebook friends. Apparently, Yoakam remembered pieces I’d done on him for the Chicago Sun-Times and Rolling Stone, and was flattered that a university press would take serious interest in his work.
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I’d signed to do the book not knowing whether Yoakam would cooperate, figuring that I could write a long-form piece of career-spanning music criticism and rely for context on secondary sources. Now that my day job is no longer music journalism but teaching aspiring journalists at the University of Iowa, I’m caught in the publish-or-perish syndrome. And here was a chance to publish, whether or not the subject was on board.
But I had to make a stab at contacting him, which took some detective work. A former country chart-topper who had sold 25 million albums—and the most successful artist ever to fuse country tradition and rock dynamics—Yoakam seemed to have dropped off the map. He hadn’t released a major-label album in a decade, had no recording deal and no publicist. Finally, I tracked down his manager, and she proved quickly and surprisingly agreeable. Even then, it took many more months to arrange an interview, a date that wouldn’t conflict with his touring and my teaching.
Just as everything was coming together, everything threatened to fall apart. When I got that message just minutes before boarding the plane, my journalistic future flashed before my eyes. No one asks you to call urgently if she just wants to reconfirm that the interview is still on.
And so I called her, and we talked. She said that she’d misunderstood the scope of the project and had somehow thought there would just be a chapter on Yoakam, not a whole book. She said that he might want to write his own book, perhaps working with a different author. She expressed concern that I might try to exploit controversy to sell books, and she wanted assurance that I wasn’t planning to talk to Pete Anderson, the producer/guitarist/bandleader who had played a pivotal role in Yoakam’s success before the two had an acrimonious split.
I responded as honestly as I could and reassured her as much as I could. I was writing music criticism, not looking for dirt. A small book for a university press would do nothing to hinder whatever book Yoakam might eventually want to write (and that I would love to read). As for talking with Anderson, I am a journalist, who goes where the story leads. What I got from Yoakam would determine where my research would take me.
Since I was committed to writing the book no matter what, Yoakam’s voice could only make it a better one. I think she agreed and was convinced that my motives were honorable. My publisher wasn’t expecting or encouraging a book that would generate controversy. We just wanted to see a worthy artist given his due.
Things not only turned out all right, they proceeded to get much better than I’d ever dared hope. Yoakam was inexhaustibly quotable, attaching no strings to his cooperation, never asking to approve the manuscript. He made Anderson seem like such an integral part of the story that I had to contact his former producer/guitarist/bandleader, who also agreed to talk. Between the two, I had a story that no one else had—not dirt, not he said/he said, but a detailed account of who did what, why things worked so well, how the partnership fell apart. Neither had discussed the other at any length since the split, and both expressed admiration for the other.
And then I really hit the jackpot. During the course of the writing, Yoakam resigned with Warner Bros., his label during the glory years, and would undoubtedly be receiving more promotion and publicity than he had in two decades with an album to be released around the time of the book. Even with the album delayed by a few months (it’s now due this summer), I couldn’t have anticipated such great fortune.
I’d begun the project to celebrate the legacy of an artist who hadn’t received his due, whose career appeared to be over and who might not even talk with me. Now I was writing a story that no one else had, at a time when Yoakam was resurrecting his career and would receive more attention than he had since his peak.
Such timing was either a cosmic fluke, or fate, or both. After all the pieces had fallen into place, the book practically wrote itself.
Then the advance reviews started coming in, ranging from positive but less than the rave I would give it to (almost) embarrassingly rapturous. But the response I worried most about was the one from Yoakam’s manager, the gatekeeper whose key had provided the access that allowed everything to unfold. She remains fiercely protective of her only client, and I knew that my perspective on Yoakam could never be the same as hers. Or his. Who knew what they might find objectionable?
“Just finished the book,” McCorkindale e-mailed. “It’s wonderful. You write beautifully.”
I teach my journalism students to anticipate that anything that can go wrong will. Now I can tell them about the one time that everything went right.
Don McLeese is a longtime contributor to Kirkus. Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere is now available from the University of Texas Press.