Before my daddy left this cruel world, he always said he was going to write a country song called "Lord, Don't Let Me Die in Dalhart."
He never got around to it. I thought about that profound lack of accomplishment on Thursday when I was deciding whether or not to attend the Dwight Yoakam concert in light of AEG and Live Nation stopping all big tours, and concerts left and right getting postponed or canceled. So far, 2020 has been a bleak near-future type of year. All this coronavirus madness has left me paranoid and disagreeable.
I opted to hold my breath for four hours and brave the potential 28 Days Later scenario descending on Denver, mostly because I don't want to die having never attended a country-music concert. That and, let's face it, a whole lot of other stuff will likely keep me from ever waltzing through the pearly gates.
Also, with every big concert getting the ax, it might be one of the last ones for a while.
I'm glad I went. Dwight Yoakam is the Man for the following reasons: For a 63-year-old, he is still spry as hell, and I was amazed at how well he boot-scooted across the stage during a two-hour-long set. He can also still hit those high notes from Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. That album is more than thirty years old. The man has a lovely voice. I put him up there with Waylon Jennings, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. And anyone who works a John Steinbeck reference into his stage banter is a keeper, as far as I'm concerned.
It was my first time at the state-of-the-art Mission Ballroom, and it seemed fairly crowded for the beginning of a global pandemic. A lot of people wore boots and cowboy hats and were obviously country-music fans. I was sporting a Joy Division T-shirt, but I'm no novice. I'm a fan of the genre — even if it cut short a fair amount of Tinder dates — and I came to it via two separate but equally important vectors:
First, the Bakersfield sound, which Mr. Yoakam is best known for, and outlaw country; they both have prominent bass drums and will immediately appeal to fans of 1990s hip-hop.
Second, as a punk fan, I eventually made it to Social Distortion and then Mike Ness's second solo record, a collection of country covers. Being the inquiring person that I am — some might say nosy — I looked up all the original performers and was eventually led to the Bakersfield sound, and then Buck Owens and finally Dwight Yoakam. I've never looked back. Country is my happy music, even if most of it is sad.
Thursday's show started with a set by Tennessee Jet, a man who's playing a few shows with a bass-and-drum accompaniment. He played a twangy mix of country-infused psychedelic rock that conjured Tom Petty and Jerry Reed. Tennessee switched to acoustic about halfway through and kicked out some more strictly twangy jams, including the alcohol-soaked "What Kind of Man," a definite crowd-pleaser.
At one point during his set, he alluded to the pandemic, because who isn't thinking about it?
"I'd like to thank you for coming out tonight," he said. "And weathering the elements. Or whatever. I'm not saying the word."
I think that was the point in the evening when I first slathered on some hand sanitizer.
Tennessee Jet finished up his set with a booming version of "I Saw the Light," by Hank Williams Sr.; a take on the Rolling Stones' cover of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips"; and an original, "Highway 51 Blues." He gave a quick bow and left to a sea of noisy guitar feedback that only stopped when a roadie came out and switched off the amp. It was a classy exit in its own way.
Yoakam emerged on stage about twenty minutes later with his four-piece backing band, three of whom were decked out in brilliant sequined jackets. I don't know where they bought them, but I want one. They played for nearly two hours. Had the set gone on any longer, Yoakam and his sidemen would have qualified as a jam band.
Not that the marathon set was bad. Not at all. They played a three- or four-song clutch of Merle Haggard numbers, and a crowd favorite, "Streets of Bakersfield," a duet once performed by Yoakam and the late, great Buck Owens. It was kind of sad to hear Yoakam sing both parts. Buck left us in 2006. They played a one-song encore: "Suspicious Minds," by Elvis Presley. It also ended in a wall of feedback and noise. It was beautiful.
Toward the end of the night, the band finally got around to "Honky Tonk Man" and "Guitars, Cadillacs" off Yoakam's debut record. I, for one, squealed with joy at the latter. That song is in Terminator 2 when Arnie jacks a biker for his clothes and motorcycle. I saw that movie with my mom in south Texas in 1991 in a theater full of hooting and hollering shit-kickers. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
And so was Thursday night at the Mission Ballroom. It's been a tough couple of weeks for everyone. No one really knows what's going to happen with the pandemic, and the powers-that-be haven't been exactly comforting. Yoakam took a few minutes about three songs in to address the crowd. He said that it's a scary time in the United States, and there was a lot of internal debate about whether the band should go on. Eventually, he said, they opted to play the show. He added that we will make it through this. Then they played "Keep on the Sunny Side," a folk song popularized by the Carter Family and big during the Great Depression.
"Thanks again for coming out and seeing us," Yoakam said a few songs later. "Hopefully, we can bring a little fun to a serious and sober moment in our country and around the world."
I kind of just melted into my seat for ninety minutes after that, because I've not been this relaxed in weeks. I never thought I'd have to go to a country show to have my existential fears assuaged.
Thank you, Mr. Yoakam. I needed that.
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