With three decades of music under his buckled belt, Dwight Yoakam has cemented his status as a country icon – and on his forthcoming album, he’s not only covering his own songs but one by a pop legend as well.
On the country star’s 12-song collection, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, Yoakam will reimagine 11 cuts from his own catalog, in addition to putting a bluegrass spin on Prince’s classic “Purple Rain.”
And PEOPLE has an exclusive first listen to Yoakam’s take on The Purple One, as well as a play-by-play of how the twangy cover came to be.
Yoakam, 59, tells PEOPLE he and his band had been planning the album in the spring when the shocking news of Prince’s death hit on April 21.
“It was the day that Prince died [and] the third day we were tracking the record. I had been watching the news coverage when it first broke and continued as I got ready to leave the hotel for the day’s sessions. I went to the studio, and everyone was kind of experiencing a bewildered sort of shock about it, and I felt deeply saddened,” the country star tells PEOPLE exclusively.
Yoakam and his team didn’t know Prince personally but were connected through his musical contributions over the years.
“We were all melancholy about someone we felt through his music we knew and who still seemed so young passing. The fact that he was found alone at his compound just seemed … a tragic punctuation to the sense of the loss for millions that he had brought such joy to with his music,” Yoakam says.
Indeed, Prince was just 57 when he was found dead inside his Paisley Park compound in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen. Three months after he was found unresponsive, the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office released a statement saying he had died of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl.
“We were all lamenting it, and I said, ‘It just feels like we should record “Purple Rain.”‘ I had always loved the simplistic beauty of that melody and refrain,” Yoakam says of choosing the track.
After finishing cutting “Purple Rain,” Yoakam took a breather from recording to process the cover.
“After we recorded it, I didn’t listen to it for three or four weeks, because I thought maybe it had just been a moment of catharsis,” Yoakam says. “Then when I was back in L.A. in the studio recording the vocals for the album a couple of my band had dropped by, and one of them saw the title on the computer screen and asked, ‘Did you cut that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it was sort of a spur of the moment musical reaction of all of us having just heard that Prince had died and an expression of feelings about him.’ They said, ‘Can we listen to it?’ So we did, and we were all kind of taken with the rawness of the emotion of the moment that the bluegrass band and I had played it with. I still wasn’t absolutely certain I should add it to the album.”
But Yoakam got the validation to include the track on the album when he met with the label exec who first signed Prince 40 years ago.
“The next time played it for someone was when Lenny Waronker, who executive produced my last two studio albums, stopped by to take a listen to these bluegrass tracks. I had forgotten that it was Lenny who had signed Prince to Warner Bros/Reprise records when Prince was just 18 years old,” Yoakam says.
“As the track played through and finished, there was a flood of emotion in his telling about having decided that Prince should be allowed to produce himself. Lenny said to leave that vocal alone, just use that scratch that [I] just played from the session, but sing a harmony [because] ‘that melody doesn’t want to be alone, it wants a harmony.’ I ended up leaving it as it was with the scratch vocal, but at Lenny’s behest sang a harmony. [The song] kept falling into place as something that was of that moment that day recording in Nashville.”
Yoakam and his team were adamant about capturing the same emotion he’d sung with the day Prince had died when it came to the production.
“Even with mixing it, Chris Lord-Alge jumped up off the couch while I was still in the studio recording the other vocals for the album when he heard it for the first time, and asked if he could mix it on the spot, and he did a rough mix right there. Then when we were ‘officially’ mixing the album later, we knew that it wasn’t the same as whatever he had done at the studio on the rough mix that night,” he says.
“Once again, the immediacy of the moment was what led us back to the expression of that moment and the emotions we were feeling the day Prince died. It was the purist expression of it – my third day in a row, cutting in Nashville, that raw tracking vocal, with the band performing purely, without a lot of forethought, just from their hearts as an expression of sadness about his passing.”
Now that the track is almost available for fans to hear, Yoakam hopes his poignant cover does the original justice.
“I always loved the song. The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my in car. It struck me as interesting and as unique an expression of love musically as anything ever in pop music,” Yoakam says. “I thought it spoke volumes about the honest willingness of the person who wrote it to bare his heart to the world through his music. Prince, I never really knew you, but I’m sure going to miss you.”
Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… is due Sept. 23.