Long Way Back

Dwight Yoakam's new acoustic retrospective casts a shining light on the preeminent alt-rocker

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 'n' rollers back in 1986. The lack of alterna-respect is especially puzzling when you consider Yoakam's recorded output: 12 offerings that, combined, make up 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 Ole 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 the 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 rereleased 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 10 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 11 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-style spine-tinglers, and mariachi horns punctuate cowboy honky-tonkers. The Clash's "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)" morphs into a Ralph Stanley-style 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.

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