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Week 30: Dwight Yoakam, Honky-Tonk Man

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

It seems a little ridiculous that in the early ’80s, Dwight Yoakam had to leave Nashville to find a receptive audience for his style of traditional country music. But in the age of Urban Cowboy and Kenny Rogers, Yoakam’s Bakersfield minimalism was undeniably out of fashion among the bigwigs who ran Music City.

Like Willie Nelson and countless iconoclasts before him, Yoakam didn’t change with the times or chase trends. A true believer in the transcendent powers of honky-tonk music, he made the country establishment accept him on his own terms. After cultivating a following playing rock clubs with like-minded roots-rockers like X and Los Lobos, Yoakam financed a homemade EP, Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc., en route to becoming one of the most respected and popular country artists of our time.

Yoakam is a bit of a tricky case for Nashville Or Bust. I very much enjoyed the four albums of his that I purchased at a struggling independent record store, but I’m finding it hard to articulate what makes him so remarkable. He isn’t a towering, larger-than life figure of brooding, almost biblical intensity, like Johnny Cash. He isn’t a genre-hopping mellow hippie outlaw like Willie Nelson, or the personification of everything that’s wrong with contemporary country like Garth Brooks. He’s never done hard time like Merle Haggard, or fried his brain with cocaine and whiskey like George Jones. He doesn’t personify joy or musical miscegenation like Bob Wills, or appear perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown and/or suicide attempt like Gary Stewart. He isn’t a prankish provocateur, like Kinky Friedman, or a postmodern amalgamation of Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley, like k.d. lang. He’s just a talented singer-songwriter who performs terrific songs in the vein of his heroes, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

I don’t want to imply that Yoakam is dull, by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a charismatic, dynamic performer in his own right who hasn’t let his gargoyle looks keep him from becoming a sex symbol and a country icon, stop him from owning motherfuckers as a talented character actor in movies like Sling Blade, Panic Room, Crank, and Crank 2: The Squeakquel. Yoakam is less colorful than many of the artists I’ve covered here, but that’s because the bar has been set almost prohibitively high. As with many of his fellow traditionalists, his music is notable in part for what it eschews. You won’t hear overpowering, one-size-fits-all strings on Yoakam’s early albums, contributions from slick professional songwriters, or many backup vocals.

It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Yoakam began his recording career with a song called “Honky Tonk Man.” Yoakam was throwing down the gauntlet, aligning himself with his honky-tonk inspirations instead of his slick peers. With a twang in his voice and a deep reverence for country’s past, Yoakam treads confidently through dependable subject matter, like binge drinking as the antidote to romantic heartache (“It Won’t Hurt”), the irresistible lure of the open road (the bluegrass-flavored “I’ll Be Gone”), coal mining and Jesus (the haunting Louvin Brothers homage “Miner’s Prayer”), and prison and the duplicity of women (“Twenty Years”). Yoakam connects the dots between his newfangled brand of old-fashioned country and his inspirations by faithfully covering Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and issuing a warning to “all you young rounders,” Jimmie Rodgers-style, on “Twenty Years.” 

Yoakam flaunted his countrified roots with the title of his stellar follow-up, Hillbilly Deluxe. Yoakam channels Elvis Presley on a cover of “Little Sister” and Lefty Frizzell on “Always Late With Your Kisses,” and he contributes a worthy addition to the pantheon of great drinking songs on the wonderfully titled “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me,” a toe-tapping ode to drinking as an antidepressant. 

As a songwriter, Yoakam benefits from the cultural specificity of his work. “Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23” hearkens back to a road that took Yoakam’s childhood friends from the drudgery and backbreaking labor of his hometown coal mines in Kentucky to slightly less soul-crushing factory jobs in the auto industry. But the shimmering promise of Route 23 turns out to be a mirage, since misery can’t be confined to a single area code or profession. It turns out that life up north in industrial towns can be just as miserable as life inside the coalmines. Like many of Yoakam’s early songs, “Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23” should be agonizingly depressing. Yet it isn’t, thanks to a sprightly pace and the palpable joy of Yoakam’s delivery. 

Yoakam’s hillbilly charm didn’t desert him on his third album, 1989’s Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room. The melancholy “I Sang Dixie” is an elegy for a lost South, while the peppy gospel number “Hold On To God” admonishes listeners to eschew the sinful ways of this ungodly world in favor of religious devotion. But the album’s key song is “Streets Of Bakersfield.” Actually, that might be underselling the song’s significance; it might just be the defining song of Yoakam’s career.

“Streets Of Bakersfield” embodies the brash defiance of an outsider who’s living on the margins of society, with pride and self-respect as his only luxuries. “You don’t know me but you don’t like me,” the drifter protagonist sings to a world full of small-minded busybodies intent on judging those they don’t understand. It’s an irrepressible blue-collar anthem that literally brought back Yoakam’s hero, Buck Owens. Owens retreated from the public eye and more or less stopped recording in the 1980s, until Yoakam convinced Owens to duet with him on “Streets Of Bakersfield,” a song Owens originally recorded in 1973. In the below clip, the delight on Yoakam’s face is palpable as the man seated next to him on a barstool is revealed to be the long-lost legend:

After Owens died in 2006, Yoakam paid tribute to his primary inspiration with Dwight Sings Buck, a characteristically stellar tribute album to the late performer. Yoakam had attained enormous success as a singer and an actor at that point, so he attacked Owens’ oeuvre not from the perspective of a fan saluting his hero, so much as a veteran saluting a fellow country great. 

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust: 
Buck Owens
Waylon Jennings
Loretta Lynn
Toby Keith