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Usually, people go quiet when I mention Dwight Yoakam. I have only had two extended conversations about his merit and oddly they both occurred within 24 hours. In the first, I was introduced to a young Elvis Presley fan. He combed his hair like Elvis and he appeared to be interested in glamour that conquered. Whilst we were discussing the importance of Elvis I suggested that the legacy of Presley had been long forfeited through the influence of people like Dylan and because no serious musician really relished competing with the memory of Elvis. The young Elvis fan disagreed and said that Yoakam not only embodied Elvis in modern music but that he represented the future of
American rock and roll. Fifties Elvis lives, he said, or something like that. I was puzzled by this odd example of rockabilly enthusiasm and also wary of accepting the argument but it did not prevent me the next day from recommending the music of Yoakam to a friend. The friend was as hostile as the young Elvis fan had been enthusiastic. Both men were rock and roll fans although neither were entrenched purists. The young Elvis fan was too devoted to his complicated and versatile hero, and my friend also liked American folk and was a big fan of Johnny Cash. The CDs of Yoakam are classified in Internet search-engines as rock, country and folk. Yoakam is left wing and has expressed his pride in the tradition of political protest that exists in American country music. I expected Yoakam to appeal more to the Johnny Cash fan than the potential Elvis imitator. Not for the first time has a judgement of mine about others been hopelessly wayward.
Dwight Yoakam has recorded 21 albums and sold more than 25 million records. His album, ‘This Time’, sold enough to be classified as Triple Platinum, which for those who are easily confused by extra noughts means an awful lot. It is his blandest effort but the up tempo rock and roll may have convinced the young fan with the hair that he was listening to someone who would fill the vacuum left by Elvis. Equally, the commercial ambitions probably persuaded the Johnny Cash fan that Dwight Yoakam is without merit. Interestingly, Yoakam does an excellent version of ‘Understand Your Man’, and it qualifies as one of the best covers ever of a Johnny Cash record.
Yoakam does not need apologists. Not only has he sold a lot of records, he has managed to be a key figure in American country music and has managed it without having to exclude rock and roll and hard core bluegrass from his repertoire. Nor has he been reduced to grinning inanely at the CWMA awards. He has also had a decent career as an actor, which is how he started in college as a young performer. He has even produced and directed a Western. Admittedly, his film is terrible which is why sensitive souls are being spared the title here but Yoakam is excellent as the loser sheriff in the movie, ‘The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada’. And if that is not enough to make you afford him respect, he appeared in the film, ‘Bandidas’, with Penelope Cruz. Salma Hayek also appeared, and I suppose she deserves a mention.
In his music, Yoakam has become increasingly discrete about his left wing politics. Perhaps his opinions have mellowed but his movie roles indicate otherwise. Maybe the tradition of protest in Country music was never as strong as he thought and he became disillusioned. And this might lead us to an explanation of why the left wing Johnny Cash fan found Yoakam easy to resist. It is not that the musician abandoned his left wing politics. Left wing European rock and roll fans do not expect American musicians to share their views but they do have a fondness for those stars that suggest subversion and discontent. Elvis may have talked American apple pie but he was also a rebel, and the sneer was confirmed by the complicated self-destructive existence that followed.
Like Elvis, Yoakam has cleverly created a successful career and honoured the working class roots of American music. But somewhere along the way, he forgot the essential ingredient, subversive distaste. And yet this is a harsh judgement because Yoakam has displayed far more integrity than extrovert malcontents with no concerns other than themselves. Well, who said the world was fair. If his music at his weakest sounds contrived that thoughtfulness has also helped him create his best CDs. These are ‘Dwight’s Used Records’, ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ and ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’. The first in that group not only features the great Johnny Cash cover but a version of the ZZ Top hit, ‘I’m Bad Nationwide’. Normally, the music of Yoakam is full of immediate hooks that eventually pall but ‘I’m Bad Nationwide’ survives being played repeatedly. Of the three, ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ is the best and it may simply be that his sincere affection for Buck Owens means something is at stake. ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’ is not as obsessive as ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ but it serves as a credible monument to honky tonk music. Those three albums exist as homage to earlier greats and others, so this may be the nature of his protest and stance. Yoakam is at his best remembering others, the working class talents that created American music. But his nature may be too full of affection and respect. Whilst it applies to the unfashionable and those that modern American materialism wants us to forget, respect undiluted can limit a talented musician. At his worst, Yoakam can appear a mannered poser sharing his record collection, a more commercial Ry Cooder. Again, this is unfair because despite his affection for homage, there are many great records in the Yoakam catalogue that are his own creation. ‘Buenas Noches In A Lonely Room’ suggests wonderfully the romance of the South Western border but, of course, regional celebration is also a form of homage. There is romance in the music of Yoakham but it is romance that precludes despair, and that is not romance at all.
Although there are exceptions, his songs about broken relationships rarely show the bitterness that most of us feel in that situation. Instead, we are obliged to note his admiration for the potential of the lost woman and his own exalted state of rejection. The comparison with Elvis is not only valid because Yoakam often includes an Elvis impersonation on his albums but because Elvis in his music, unlike Yoakam, managed to achieve intimacy while remaining a mystery. Both Yoakam and his music are emotionally distant. Critics have acclaimed his recent album, ‘3 Pears’, and it does contain new directions. ‘Trying’ is a fine ballad and ‘Waterfall’ is a good song with better than normal lyrics but the developments are suspiciously reminiscent of Loving Spoonful, and whilst that is okay it brings us dangerously close to the Beatles style calculation that undermined albums like ‘If There Was A Way’.
I am, though, not like the Johnny Cash admirer who expressed contempt. I have all the albums and have never regretted any of the purchases. So why do I imply dissatisfaction about not having something I had no right to expect? I suppose because I still hoped. Yoakam was a left wing Elvis fan that believed in the American working class. He did okay, as anybody who has thrilled to the hooks that he plants in his songs will agree. But right now in these dark days some of us are obliged to hope for more than that.
If you want to read about Elvis and the Frankenstein creature click here.
If you want to read about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley click here.
If you want to know what happened to the author in Brazil click here.
You can watch and listen to Dwight Yoakam and his hero Buck Owens here: