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Long Way Back

Dwight Yoakam sports a cowboy hat -- and a legend's repertoire.

Maybe it's his rubber-tight britches -- pants so snug they'd make the Michelin Man squirm. Or maybe it's his countrypolitan image and those knock-kneed maneuvers he's made famous -- Presleyan gyrations that make the ladies smile and the men snicker. Whatever the reason, despite his place as a trailblazer in the history of alt-country, Dwight Yoakam has been ignored by too many insurgent country fans. It's a confounding reality considering that Yoakam's debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. is the disc that put a little country into the record collections of so many rockabillies, punks and rock-and-rollers back in 1986. The lack of alterna-respect is especially puzzling when you consider Yoakam's recorded output: twelve offerings that combine as one of the finest collections of American music by any songwriting performer of the past three decades.

"I think when you experience the kind of commercial success that we were fortunate enough to experience, the public views you as more mainstream," Yoakam says of his unsung hero status from his home outside Los Angeles. "And I guess that's the reason that we aren't always categorized with the same people we began the journey with -- even though we're still championing those same kinds of alternative aesthetics on our albums."

Yoakam's sentiments smack of some serious understatement. While country legends and newcomers alike continue to cut their C&W with a sickening array of commerce-minded stylings, Yoakam has refused to stomp on the genuine music he creates. Instead, he's carved a niche outside of Nashville -- musically and geographically -- that fervently embraces the musical virtues with which he was baptized while growing up in Pikeville, Kentucky.

"One of the foundations of my music will always be rural mountain music from southeast Kentucky and the southeastern Ohio Valley," he says with a hint of defiant emphasis. "That bluegrass environment had a lot to do with my spiritual response and outlook on the world." His parents, he notes, "car-sung it [with] the radio, going up and down Route 23, and we had the phonograph records, and we sang in church a cappella."

When his family moved to Ohio, Yoakam continued to enjoy these sounds through his own creations. After a brief stint in college, he struck out for Nashville in search of musical success. Long before any of today's alt-country types were wearing their "too-country" badges of honor, Yoakam was told by a Grand Ol' Opry representative that his music was too real for Music City. He migrated to Southern California in search of others addicted to the beloved Bakersfield/ Buck Owens sound that got its start in the state, and met up with guitarist Pete Anderson; the two collaborated to release a self-produced EP in 1984, A Town South of Bakersfield. In 1986 they produced a full-length release, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The record was a hit with L.A. rock radio stations and indie outlets across the country; it was subsequently re-released by Capitol and given a big-time push. The recording's title track and Yoakam's cover of Johnny Horton's "Honkytonk Man" reached the top ten on the country charts and began a long string of hits for Yoakam. The disc was a welcome straight shot for those craving real roots music, and it remains a time capsule of essential country.

Since then, Yoakam has produced eleven more genuine-article recordings. And over the past decade, his work with guitarist/producer Anderson has evolved into an even more rewarding relationship. Yoakam's recordings in the '90s -- If There Was a Way (1990), This Time (1993), Gone (1996), Under the Covers (a collection of revamped covers from 1997) and 1998's A Long Way Home -- are shining examples of neo-country that update the heart and spirit of the classics with why-didn't-I-think-of-that? modern motifs. In Dwight's songbook, Hammond B-3 organ solos appear in the middle of Owen Bradley-styled spine-tinglers, and mariachi horns punctuate cowboy honky-tonkers. The Clash's "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)" morphs into a Ralph Stanley-styled classic (on Under the Covers), and studio touches rub elbows with hardscrabble Americana forms. Collectively, Yoakam's catalogue is brainy and brawny, and it never dips its boot tips into schmaltz or slop pop.

"With each album," Yoakam says, "I've been in search of inspiration for myself and the band. If we're able to keep inspiring each other, we'll have some success in engaging the audience. I'm very proud of my collaboration with Pete over these years."

The pairing has recently resulted in a collaboration of a decidedly different sort -- dwightyoakamacoustic.net -- a recording that further illuminates Yoakam's out-of-the-mainstream stance. Acoustic.net is a 25-song retrospective of Yoakam's finest songs, re-created with nothing more than his up-from-the-mines, high-lonesome voice and an acoustic guitar. It's a sprawling, 75-minute opus that makes a few things immediately clear. For starters, the minimalist packaging (the cover is a simple sticker, and the disc has no artwork or liner notes) couldn't be more of a marketer's nightmare. The CD's unplugged approach is also commercially chancy, as was Yoakam's acting turn as the abusive antagonist Doyle in Billy Bob Thornton's film Sling Blade, an effort that found Yoakam baring the pate he normally hides beneath his cowboy hat and portraying one of the most despicable villains the cinema has ever seen. Acoustic.net's risks are even more dicey. On the CD, Yoakam whittles his favorites down to the marrow, a move no studio-musician-addicted Nashville cat (or so-called "alternative" rock artist) would ever attempt.

 

The fortunate result is a collection that should thrill anyone who craves a salt-of-the-earth sound. The disc should also earn Yoakam some newfound credibility with those who may have dismissed him in the past. Though, as Yoakam points out, that wasn't the intention of the record. "This record was intended as a note to those friends that we've acquired over the past fifteen years. I set about to revisit these songs based on the audience responding to me performing some of them alone in encores on last year's tour." Yoakam says the disc was originally going to be a nine- to ten-song collection. But once he and Anderson started recording it, they decided to make it a larger effort. (Two tunes left off the record can be heard via a Web site that shares the disc's title.) "What I found happening," Yoakam says, "was that I was not only rediscovering these songs, but experiencing them almost for the first time in that environment and discovering brand-new emotional territory."

Longtime fans will find that new punch as well. The disc shows Yoakam's singular tenor taking on a greater heft and maturity that enhances his songs' retro feel. In this nude format, even often-heard cuts take on a deeper resonance and weight; collectively, the disc calls to mind the power of Johnny Cash's 1995 solo recording, American Recordings. Yoakam's songs -- like the best country gems -- crack the heart in direct fashion. His raw-boned images and characters seldom enjoy relief from their woes, no matter how hard they cling to the past and their bottles of choice. "Bury Me," originally a duet with Lone Justice's Maria McKee on Yoakam's debut album, is now stripped to the core. It's a homesick anthem for an Appalachian boy, lost in the big city, who pines for a resting place in his beloved hills of coal. The rambling theme reappears in other cuts, including "Traveler's Lantern" and the gut-wrenching "A Long Way Home." Yoakam also strums through hillbilly laments such as "Please, Please Baby," "I'll Be Gone" and the overwhelming sadness of "Johnson's Love," in which the ghost of the tune's title character still roams the hills, calling the name of the woman that broke his heart.

The drinking song is one form that Yoakam has elevated to heavenly, intoxicating status, and here he performs some of his best alcohol-numbed odes. "If this bottle would just hold out 'til tomorrow," Yoakam sings on "It Won't Hurt," "I know that I'd have sorrow on the run." Other sobbing-in-the-spirits gems include "This Drinkin' Will Kill Me" and the brutal "Two Doors Down:" "From the hotel to the bar/is just a stumble and fall," Yoakam sings in the latter, "and sometimes when it gets bad/I been known to crawl." But Yoakam is also a master of the subtly poppy twangler, and "Things Change," "If There Was a Way" and "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere" are nice examples. Trad honky-tonkers that get the solo treatment include "Sad, Sad Music," the aching "Home for Sale" and "The Distance Between You and Me."

Overall, the disc is a classic collection of contemporary American music and a testimonial to Yoakam's Hall of Fame status. A listen to this CD -- in the dark, with a drink in hand -- makes it obvious that Dwight Yoakam belongs in the same revered company as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson. Even if he frequently hides from happy endings the way that Shania avoids a country melody.

"Ambiguity is the nature of life, I think," Yoakam says of his songs' hurting subjects and unresolved endings, "and I don't know that we always wrap things up with a nice, neat bow. It's something that I never resist when I'm writing songs." In the stark form, these songs are hitting home with at least a few newcomers to Yoakamville. "There has been a peripheral audience out there that's been unaware or only marginally aware of us over the past few years," Yoakam says. "Now they've come in contact with the acoustic album and embraced it as its own piece of work. It's been surprising to the label as well as to Pete and myself.

 

"The first two or three years on the road," he notes, "every night I felt like I was introducing myself and my music to the audience on any given night. But what I've found this year is that it's as if I'm visiting old friends with the audience now." Yoakam will offer up another gift for those fans this fall when he releases his next fleshed-out studio release on October 1. He's offering no predictions as to whether it will return him to the hit-machine status he enjoyed in the '80s. Nor is he sweating that situation, which adds at least a little irony to the idea of anyone dismissing his music as Wal-Mart material.

"It's incumbent on the individual artist to maintain his bearing and stay earnest and true to their course," says Yoakam, sounding every bit the country-music anarchist. "The point is to let the sea rise to meet you at whatever point that you're traversing it. The current there, it will either come to you or not. You can't chase it."


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