Quintessential hillbillyist and consummate singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam doesn't mince words; he meshes them with skilful precision; and, millions will agree, the Duke of Cool makes a joyful noiseful.
I use "hillbilly" with my tongue in my cheek and my heart in my hand in terms of my love of it and my understanding of it having ironically given me the things in my life most meaningful to me in terms of a way of expressing myself.
Some say Dwight got music; others say music got Dwight; either way, Yoakamaniacs will have their ears full of the angles, edges, curves, and attitudes His Royal Moodiness embodies when This Time (Reprise/Warner), his sixth release in eight years, reaches retail next week.
"I think," muses Yoakam from his LA home at the outset of our Ma-Bell mediation, "I think what I'm doing and what's probably happened over the course of six albums is I've become less genre-identified and more individually articulated this time."
In other words, This Time's new musical direction represents both a departure from Yoakam's traditional hillbilly roots and a return to the contemporaneous influences shaping the mind conceiving and creating some of the most durably significant country music ever made.
"The first two albums (1986's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and 1987's Hillbilly Deluxe) were illustrative of my past. They were both a necessity for me to arrive at making either Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room (1988) or If There Was A Way (1990) and, most obviously, This Time."
Firmly grounded in hillbilly principles but stylistically enhanced by what Yoakam calls "emulative referencing" (or the subtle art of allusional tribute), astute ears will hear echoes of Smokey Robinson, the Mills Bros., Roy Orbison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Moody Blues, John Lennon, Procol Harum, the Everly Bros., Harlan Howard, Bob Seger, the Ad Libs, Duane Eddy, Phil Spector, Bobby Darin, Bob Dylan, the Stones, and Owen Bradley's trademark cosmopolitan sound (not to mention a host of other near-past producer and performer greats) this time.
"I'm too tangent-oriented to not have been influenced by other musical styles and to not have the desire to express myself with those musical styles being on the palette as choices of colour, so to speak."
You get the picture: The colours of This Time — red-hot rockers juxtaposed with rhythm-and-bluesiness all wrapped up with hillbilly lily-white heartstringers — complement the complex emotional statements and unusually person-to-personable material Yoakam presents on most of the new tunes, tunes he maintains bear little relationship to his own life per se.
"I'm the narrator," explains Sharon Stone's ex-squeeze when queried about the actress's impact on sides such as the lead-off single, "Ain't That Lonely Yet," "Fast As You," and "Try Not To Look So Pretty"; plus, he points out, "the relationship only lasted five weeks, like."
Like, the thing about Yoakam? Even if you hadn't caught him tangled up in moodiness, even if you hadn't noticed the way he breathes new life into old jeans, even if that pout didn't turn you inside out, you'd still fall head over heels for his extraordinary brand of hillbilly music.
Of course, every bonus bit's a Dwight delight, an integral part of the package the man's fans expect; however, taken at voice value, his six-pack of discs consistently stacks up with the best in the world.
And, although Yoakam isn't your average neo-countrypolitan singer-songslayer, he still appeals to a huge cross-section of listeners: Truckers and technocrats live and die by his discs; followers come running from all walks of urban and rural life; plus, The Dwightster collared all colours back in '86 when his debut-single remake of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man" (1956) blasted the country 'waves prior to the new-country deluge of tradition-lovin' haute-hillbilly progressivists currently cruising the charts.
"I was born into a moment in time — as that whole generation of which I'm a part was — and grew up in the '60s when pop radio in America exploded like never before. I grew up with the innate and intuitive primary influence of my environment culturally — the colloquial artform of people indigenous to southeast Kentucky — that's hillbilly music, country music. I was also peripherally exposed to an enormous wealth of sounds that came from all over the country through pop radio and television simultaneously."
"And, it all ended up on This Time?"
"You know, yeah, I think, yeah . . . Just maybe it did."
Personally, I couldn't take this journey without articulating and clearly defining for myself that what I am musically has a great deal to do with the influences of my past; but, I don't feel as compelled to express myself with the degree of urgency that I felt in the beginning. Now, I think I tend toward a greater degree of contemplation and feel more compelled to do it from the standpoint of an audience having some understanding of all that, too. It's a way of delivering it that will somehow garner the attention necessary to make someone aware enough of the music that they will then discover on their own the things that are hopefully universal within it . . .
My ideal listener's someone that's unbiased and willing to embrace anything I do musically. Yeah!
Hillbilly. Born in Pikeville, Kentucky (near Loretta Lynn's Butcher Holler), Yoakam's accent generated ridicule after his gas-station attendant father moved the family to Columbus, Ohio. He recalls the front-porch gospel-and-bluegrass gatherings as vividly as he recalls watching his grandfather trying to shake the coal dust from his lungs by rolling around the ground.
The hillbilly kid who'd penned his first tune at eight headed for Nashville when he turned 22. Nashville dismissed him for his refreshing analysis of an industry mired in the quicksand of the bland; besides, the guy's too-country approach irked diehard countrypolitans. So, Yoakam rented a marginally furnished LA room and gigged as an airport-freight trucker while playing suburban punkytonks and eventually snagging opening-act honours for the Blasters, Violent Femmes, Lone Justice, Los Lobos, and X around LA.
Apparently, Reprise paid Yoakam five grand for the six-song EP constituting the nucleus of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Since then, each Yoakam effort's turned either gold or platinum numbers plus, with the recent success of the "Suspicious Minds" video/single (Honeymoon in Vegas) fuelling interest in the 36-year-old's musings and cruisings, the 80-day pan-American tour currently slated to rev up in May will no doubt further boost both The Duke of Cool's profile as well as his phenomenal record sales.
Let me think. What brings me joy? The prospect of some form of domestic bliss. The prospect of there being something other than this existence which now consumes us as humans that will overtake us at some point.
Yoakam. The guy did time in the workshop of obsession, hammering out an approach to both the music and, as Dr. Dwight himself says, its intrinsic and extrinsic relationships to the recreation of the self in terms of both past and place. Moreover, the off-the-cuff philosopher more or less did it his way because, for Yoakam, the place you've just left often winds up being the place where you're heading.
"Dwight Yoakam: Duke of Cool" was originally the cover-story feature of The Toronto Star's 20 March 1993 "Entertainment" section.© 1993-2008 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.