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Dwight Yoakam confounds me. Here's a guy who, with very little variation, has recorded and performed the same letter-perfect honky-tonk music for well more than a decade. Fiddle, steel, keyboards, bass, electric guitar and drums, all lined up behind Yoakam with OCD-like precision, a formula that worked for Hank, Lefty, Buck, Merle, Webb, Stonewall, George -- you know the drill.
Yoakam started out a little after the Urban Cowboy stampede made the Nashville Brass think they had a shot at mainstream pop. They wiped the cow shit off their expensive ostrich cowboy boots and ran headlong at the door, ready to bust through, and suddenly found themselves, like lemmings, falling straight down 1,000 screaming feet.
Looking down at the mess were Reba, George Strait, and the Judds, the neo-traditional newcomers, but immediately behind them were Yoakam and Steve Earle, Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett, and behind them, Clint Black and Garth Brooks.
If popular music is an amusement park, surely one of the fastest and steepest roller coasters has been country music, and in the 15 or so years since Yoakam signed with Reprise Records, thousands have climbed aboard but very few have stayed on the ride.
Earle and Lovett were innovators who drew on older traditions -- still are -- but Yoakam took his precious memories of greater glories and held them tight, tighter than his trademark skinny-legged jeans. "Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music" was his anthem and the title track from his first record, and he has deviated from that statement by no more than a whisker ever since.
But -- and here is where it gets weird -- is this the same guy who went to live in Los Angeles, played in the same punk-roots sandbox as X and the Blasters and Los Lobos, shot off his mouth from the rooftops about the greed and decrepitude of the Nashville Suits and the record companies, and started an acting career by letting himself be whipped onstage by Sally Kirkland in a play directed by Peter Fonda?
These days, Yoakam tools around Hollywood in his black El Camino, popping into snazzy late-night L.A. eateries where the waiters know him by name. He has his own business selling biscuits on the Internet. Lately he's played cringing bullies and wide-eyed rubes in pictures like Sling Blade and Roswell, and he's anxious to finance and release his first full-length motion picture, a movie called South of Heaven, West of Hell, which no one who doesn't possess a degree in revisionist Westerns can describe. Yoakam directed, co-wrote and starred in the vicious and viciously funny film that owes as much to Alex Cox and Kenneth Anger as it does to Sam Peckinpah.
In about a month, he starts acting in a film with Nicole Kidman called The Panic Room. Directed by David (Seven) Fincher, Yoakam is cast as a homicidal burglar.
And yet here he is with a brand-new CD, Tomorrow's Sounds Today, which could just as easily be his third, fifth, 10th or 20th collection of original material (actually, it's his eighth, not counting live, acoustic and cover albums, Christmas discs, EPs or greatest-hits collections). There is not one hair out of place, no sense that after all this time and the change in climate in his field of choice, has he decided to, I dunno, turn into Gary Numan or Tom Jones or Chris Gaines.
If anything, Yoakam's work is even tighter. The pedal steel is more pronounced, Pete Anderson's guitar is more aggressive but every bit as stunningly precise, as is his production. There is no group or singer better fashioned to rock a backwoods bistro. It's a shame that Yoakam is too big for sawdust and barnwood and chickenwire venues because it's places like that that music like this was designed to be heard in.
Yoakam wrote most of this material while he was loafing between takes while making movies, in bits and pieces, he says, but that isn't reflected in the music.
There's a choice reggae-fied riff on "For Love's Sake" that cries for a dub version, dub-abilly, I guess you could say, and there's a fiendish 1:15 rocking fadeout to "A Place to Cry" that does a nice job of showcasing Anderson's guitar.
Down a ways there's a nice Cajun two-stepper ("Alright, I'm Wrong") with Flaco Jimenez's accordion and Buck Owens' voice that's only marginally less spirited than the song that finishes the disc, a faux-hillbilly gospel takeoff called "I Was There."
What's most evident on the new record is Yoakam's exuberance, how much he seems to continue to enjoy making the same music he's been making, in spite of how much his, and our, world has changed over time.