Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Dwight Yoakam: The Fine Art of Re-Invention

Another new article for Paste Magazine ...


Dwight’s Yoakam’s 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today features a title that has to be one of the greatest musical in-jokes of all time. Yoakam has made a 20+ year career out of brushing the cobwebs from yesterday’s sounds (in particular, rockabilly and the classic mid ‘60s Bakersfield loping swagger of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard) and transforming them into something fresh and relevant. So one suspects that beneath the cowboy hat that perpetually covers his face, Dwight had his tongue firmly in his cheek. He apparently still does, in fact, given a couple of the Monty-Pythonesque interludes on his new album.

Between filming the final takes of Bandidas, his latest movie, where he chases Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek around the dusty streets of Durango, Mexico (it’s a rough job, but somebody has to do it), Yoakam found the time to record a new record. Blame the Vain, Dwight’s eighteenth album (not counting the numerous compilations and tribute albums on which he appears), represents something of a departure for the veteran singer and songwriter. It’s his first musical foray without longtime producer and guitarist Pete Anderson, his first stab at production, and his fist recorded output with a new band that features players as varied as former George Jones guitar slinger Keith Gattis and seminal Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall. Why the change?

“Well, I think it’s incumbent on any songwriter to find new inspiration throughout his or her life,” Yoakam says. “And in the last couple of years I’ve been rethinking just how to go about this process. This time I wanted to go for a more stripped down, austere sound, and I’d been playing with the Sin City All Stars in L.A., sitting in with this loose collective of folks who love to play country and country-rock music. It just seemed like the logical place to begin when I started recording the new album.”

Blame the Vain’s twelve songs will still sound reassuringly familiar to Yoakam’s longtime fans. It’s not like the man has gone and recorded a hip-hop album, although the two spoken-word rants here (with a British accent, no less) at least leave that door open for the future. The album’s songs are equally split between the rockabilly rave-ups and Bakersfield honky tonkers for which Yoakam is best known and the sadsack ballads that have always characterized the best country music. As always, Dwight’s singing and songwriting are first-rate.

“The best songs tend to write themselves,“ Yoakam says. “I just try to be still long enough so I don’t interfere with the process. The songs on this album just led me along for the ride. On “Intentional Heartache” I started out with just the first two lines: “She drove south I-95 straight through Carolina/She didn’t use no damn map to find her way.” I really had no idea where that song was taking me. But I lived with it for a while, let the music drive the lyrics and the lyrics drive the music, lived with that symbiotic relationship, you know, and I let the song take me where it wanted to take me. Pretty soon there was a story there, a whole history there, that I could have never envisioned when I started.”

The process is nowhere better realized than on “I Wanna Love Again,” an update of the classic Bakersfield sound that is part cornball romantic lament and part existential angst that could have come from nowhere but the deepest recesses of the heart.

“It’s funny in a way,” Dwight says. “You start off with a stereotypical love song, and eventually you realize that you’re writing about middle age, and a loss of joy in your life, and a desire to recapture that sense of reckless spontaneity and abandon. This whole album is like that. It took me places I didn’t expect to go. And I hope that sense of fun and pure joy in making music comes through. Almost everything else has changed, and yet it all comes back to the joy of making music.”

In the end, that’s the conundrum with which Blame the Vain confronts the longtime Dwight Yoakam listener. The man has managed to re-invent himself, find new wellsprings of creativity, and still sound like no one but Dwight Yoakam. And he’s done it while still sounding consistently good. In twenty years, Dwight Yoakam never made a bad or even mediocre album with Pete Anderson. He hasn’t made one without him, either. – Andy Whitman


danthress said...

Northland High School's very own...

Good things do come out of Columbus Public Schools!

Andy Whitman said...

Indeed. We talked quite a bit about Columbus. Obviously, there's no reason or need to include those comments in an article about his music, but Dwight had some pretty funny stories to tell about playing the Agora (now the Newport Music Hall) when he was a student at OSU, doing his rockabilly twang thing as an opener for a heavy metal band. Needless to say, he was not well received.

It turns out that he's a big OSU football fan as well. He had some detailed questions about the 2005 Buckeyes (who's replacing Simon Frasier at defensive end?, etc.) that I couldn't answer, and I'm a reasonably knowledgeable fan.

He was also a very articulate guy. I don't know why I expect guys in cowboy hats to sound like Bubba, but he sounded more like an English professor, and talked about the symbiotic relationship between words and music and the juxtaposition of country music stereotypes and themes involving a more deep-seated existential angst. Bubba Sartre. Who would have figured it?

danthress said...

Great stuff.

Dwight has a long-standing relationship with Jerry McAfee who was his band director at Northland, and who was my principle/boss at Fort Hayes. A outstanding guy. I was really impressed/inspired that they have keep up their relationship for so long.

Dr McAfee is scheduled to retire this year, but I pray that he doesn't. He keeps a signed photo of Dwight in his office behind his desk.

Anonymous said...

What a great article you've written. Dwight Yoakam's work, both film and music, is so significant and noteworthy. Who writes with the irony and angst quite like him? No one.