25 Years Ago: Dwight Yoakam Debuts Doyle Hargraves in ‘Sling Blade’

We already knew that Dwight Yoakam was the King of Country Cool when he came out of Kentucky and landed in Southern California, shaking his hips like Elvis, and revitalizing the Bakersfield Sound like Buck. He was exactly what 80’s country needed to shake things up—a neotraditionalist that young people could still find cool.

But it was 25 years ago today, on November 27th, 1996, when we first discovered that Dwight Yoakam was truly a multi purpose entertainer. It was the day that the Billy Bob Thornton-directed film Sling Blade debuted, with Thornton in the lead role as the intellectually disabled Karl Childers, and Dwight Yoakam playing his adversary, the volatile Doyle Hargraves.

Billy Bob Thornton ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for the role, and winning for writing the screenplay for the film. Dwight Yoakam got nothing. But talk to anyone here 25 years later after time has had the opportunity to poke holes in the performance, and people will still proclaim that Dwight Yoakam turned in a tour de force as the abusive boyfriend, and bad bandleader.

Music wasn’t a significant component to Sling Blade, but it did play a role. In the film is a really bad back porch band, led by Yoakam. As fans of the cult classic film can tell you, the character Terrence was played by real life songwriter Vic Chesnutt who was wheelchair bound, and passed away in 2009. In the film’s pivotal scene where Doyle Hargraves loses it, he runs the Vic Chesnutt character into a closed door. Though everyone insisted Chenutt use a stunt double, Chesnutt refused.

In fact most of the actors in the Doyle Hargraves band were actual musicians. Col. Bruce Hampton is an Atlanta music legend, and plays the poetically-minded lyricist Morris in the film. And the bearded Mikey Jones was a founding member of The First Edition with Kenny Rogers, and also played drums for Bob Dylan and others before focusing more on character acting later in his career.

Another cast member, John Ritter, was the son of country star and co-founder of the CMA and Country Music Hall of Fame, Tex Ritter. Billy Bob Thorton has also been known to play some music, but likes to keep those two disciplines separate.

What’s even more astonishing is that Doyle Hargraves was Dwight Yoakam’s first major role in a film. He did play some other roles in other films before, but this was Yoakam’s first time really stepping out, and he nailed it.

In an interview about his role in the film, Dwight Yoakam said, “After being on set a couple of days and shooting a couple of my scenes, I remember calling my manager on the phone and saying, ‘You know what, I think I’m in a real one here, something that will really have an impact. I think Billy [Bob Thornton] is doing something unique and lasting as a director and writer.’ I was really proud to be a part of it, and I still am.”

Yoakam’s performance in Sling Blade meant he was immediately taken more seriously as an actor, and in some ways, more seriously as a musician as well.

“I know that the craft of acting is not something that happens by accident,” Yoakam says. “It has to do with the rhythm of truth and how you say what you say as an actor. The old expression, ‘Does something have the ring of truth to it?’ To put it another way, ‘Does it have the rhythm of truth to it? It’s a performance of a scripted scenario of life. That fictional scripting, as with songwriting, is really addressing larger collective universal truths. Sling Blade is one of the seminal moments of my life as an artist of expressing myself artistically.”

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