I hate country music. I love what country music should have always been, like the soundtrack to Oh, Brother and the real James Dean, Hank Williams. But those toupee-wearing whorehoppers in Nashville did something to country music somewhere along the way. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, and I'm not sure who to blame, but somebody somewhere needs their ass whipped. Hank would back me up on that if he wasn't so embarrassed by this dumbass kid who carries his name around with some kind of mullet in tow and tries to fuck up as profoundly as his daddy did. Wannabee fuckups. God, I hate 'em. And, no, I am NOT ready for some freaking football.
Country music is supposed to be the music of the common man: Sort of like rap for rednecks. It's supposed to be about fallen souls who make bad choices because they've had way too much to drink at an inopportune time of day. It's supposed to be about lovers who screw up their one last best chance at what folks have been screwing up since it all began. It's like Jesse Winchester says so well:
And if love comes, it will come too late.
And, above all, it's supposed to be sung with a twang and a bar band that has to be sequestered behind a chicken wire enclosure because the damn crowd's liable to commence a mass ass whoopin' at any minute.
Dwight Yoakam understands all of this. He was born October 23, 1956 in Pikesville, Kentucky. His family moved when he was a kid and he was brung up in Ohio. He tried to make his momma happy by going to Ohio State after getting out of high school, but he soon gave up on college (man, I wish I'd been that smart) and moved to Nashville. This was likely a very big mistake. He was trying to sell his version of country music; the version he'd learned listening to Johnny Horton and Buck Owens as a kid. Nashville didn't want real country music by this time. Rhinestone Cowboys and their toupees and cocaine had screwed it all up by the time Dwight pulled into town.
He did manage to meet a guy named Pete Anderson, a guitar player, and the two of them did the smart thing: They moved to L.A. Since then, Pete Anderson has played guitar on his songs and produced most of the albums. When Yoakam was in down periods, thinking it would never work, Anderson was his sensei, telling him, "You're doing it right. Don't give up."
Dwight has lived the country music equivalent of what happened to Elvis Costello over on the pop side. He said what was on his mind. He spoke out freely against what he felt were injustices to country legends and to country music itself. He felt that the country establishment was turning its back on real country in favor of these bejeweled mullet-heads singing dubious arrangements which were being marketed as country music. You can imagine that this made it a bit difficult for him to break through in Music City, USA. It was unlikely that he'd be the diva at their little opera.
He found he just couldn't do it in Nashville. So when he and Anderson moved to L.A., they started playing in the clubs where they found roots rock fans who were getting in touch with a new breed of traditionalists by listening to local bands like Los Lobos, The Blasters and Lone Justice. When Yoakam made his name on this circuit, he found that his fans were known as cowpunks.
In Sept. of 1987, he met Buck Owens; a man he'd admired from afar for such a long while. They immediately became good friends and, in 1988, they recorded an old song Buck had put out back in the 1970s called The Streets of Bakersfield. This is the first thing I ever heard Yoakam do, and I was mildly impressed. There is something about hearing ol' Buck tune it up again that brings back all those happy memories of Hee Haw and Roy Clark and BR-549 and all them big-tittied women out in the cornfield.
In 1991, he did the cover of Truckin for the Deadicated album. I bought that thing and all it did for me was convince me that the Grateful Dead were overrated. I had suspected that was the case for a long time, but this cinched the deal. Dwight's version of this song is OK, and (again) I was mildly impressed. There's no overlooking the obvious, however: The song (as with most of the oeuvre of the G'Dead) just plain sucks, unless you just happen to be holding a Zap comix in one hand, a very fat blunt in the other, a hit of orange sunshine melting on your tongue, and you're shedding synapses like a collie in July.
In 1993, he released what is considered his masterpiece album called This Time. He toured the globe for over a year in order to support the album. In 1994, he received his first Grammy for the album’s single, Ain’t That Lonely Yet. When I heard that one, I moved past being mildly impressed and ventured headlong into genuine appreciation.
On Under the Covers, his eighth album, the first song is Claudette. He said, "It's so expressive of the kind of musical legacy that I come from, which is The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison -- two of the major musical influences in my life. So here's a song that was written by one, Roy, and performed by and identified with the other act, The Everlys." I don't much care for Claudette, but I sure was glad to see him dropping names like those.
In 1996, he co-starred in Billy Bob Thornton's film Sling Blade. His performance as the evil Doyle Hargraves was workmanlike and even had moments of inspiration. That film was shot in a little town just a few miles south of where I live. I have to go down there quite often, and every time I drive down that street where Doyle's girlfriend's house sits, I think about ol' Dwight acting his little ass off for the big screen. He was included with the cast of Sling Blade who were among the nominees for "Best Cast" by the Screen Actors Guild awards.
He's been in other movies and TV-deals, but this is the only acting job I've ever seen him attempt. I'd give him a B-. You could check out his debut, Red Rocks West from 1992 with Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper. Or you could check out his work in Roswell – The U.F.O. Cover-up with Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen in 1994. Since I detest Martin Sheen about as much as I do Alec Baldwin, it'll be a cold day in my little personal corner of hell before that one slips into my VCR. He's been in several other films in bit parts, all the way up to this year's Panic Room. As I said, I've not seen any of these. I will bet you he gets somewhere around a B- in all of them. Just guessing.
What he does best is sing country music. His own songs are usually quite good, but he's put out several covers which have impressed me more than his own stuff. For instance, his version of Suspicious Minds is better than Elvis' version in about a dozen ways. He cut this as part of the soundtrack for the Castle Rock film Honeymoon In Vegas, with Nicolas Cage as the lead. Somehow the downbeat on the snare is more elegant, the background singers are more evocative, and his vocal work is just outstanding. The phrasings have so much more commitment to them than Elvis ever managed. Somehow just the substitution of "cannot" for "can't" in the line "we cannot build our dreams on suspicious minds" is crucial. He doesn't have the range of Elvis, but he's got a whole lot more sense. He understands what the songs really mean, aside from the fact that they are a showcase for his hot little ass.
I saw some old footage of Elvis the other day. He was doing a sort of Unplugged deal in Vegas in a small room with the little stage in the middle. I could not get past the King's misguided sense of self-importance. It was as if the music was less than secondary to his perceived presence. At one point, he teases the girls by threatening to "stand up" to do the next song. The gofers can't find a strap for his guitar and this puts him off for a bit, but he decides to just go ahead and stand up anyway. The mics are all in a fixed position for sitting down, so one of his band members has to get down on his knees and hold the mic up so that Elvis can sing into it. What kind of man would allow someone to be in front of him, on his knees, holding a mic just so he could wiggle his ass for the girls in the audience? It's often said that you can tell a whole lot about a person by how they treat the hired help. You might have enjoyed meeting Elvis when he was in his twenties, but by this point in his life, I suspect you'd have just wanted to punch him out had you been alone with him for a few minutes.
Dwight Yoakam has none of this pretense about him, as far as I can tell. He wears the same cowboy hat (a cheap one) and usually has on old blue jeans with the knees worn out. He does his little heel and toe redneck moonwalk and holds his guitar at a suggestive 45o angle from his crotch as he looks down at the ground while he sings. These are his only "moves" and when he speaks to someone, he's just a real guy with enough humility left to be human. This persona is always subject to change, of course, as the Hollywood whorehopping demons get closer and closer to his soul.
As with his version of Suspicious Minds, his version of Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues is also superior to the Danny O'Keefe original. His range is pretty much exhausted on this one. He can't go all that far, but the way he gets there is just heart-wrenching. "Some got to win; some got to lose." That's his upper register. . . . "And if love comes, it will come too late." I just threw that in again to remind you.
His version of Kinky Friedman's Rapid City, South Dakota is also better than the Kinkster's. I'm not sure if this is how Don Imus got turned on to Yoakam, but I used to listen to "Imus in the Morning" fairly regularly a few years ago, and he had Yoakam on the show a few times. (Imus and Kinky Friedman go back a long, long way.) You could tell by the appearances on Imus that not only was Yoakam a real guy, but he also had some real insecurities. I don't think he liked the references to the obvious fact that he was losing his hair. Maybe that's why he seldom appears without that $50 cowboy hat. Basically, he came across as a regular smalltown guy who is still in awe of the stardom machine.
Imus couldn't get enough of the dysfunctional Christmas song Yoakam had done on his Come on Christmas album called "Santa Can't Stay." It's a perfect American divorcee's holiday song: The boyfriend (Ray) is living with the mom as the dad tries to come visit the kids after one too many afternoon cocktails. It's told from the little boy's perspective who is watching this nightmare before Christmas unfold from the top of the stairs. His mom yells,
"Doug you're drunk don't come inside.
I'm not joking; I've had all this I can take."
(Dad) threw a present really hard
That almost hit Mom's new boyfriend Ray,
And yelled "Ho-Ho, lucky for you she's here,"
And said that Santa couldn't stay.
That's the part of town where they play country music on the radio, and that's where I grew up, too, Mr. Yoakam. Thanks for telling the toupeed whorehoppers in Nashville to shove it and giving me something real.