Dwight Yoakam has a distinctive take on country music. He started building his career in Los Angeles, during the height of the urban cowboy craze in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Though everyone wanted to book country acts, his version, which he calls “hard country,” wasn’t always welcome. An acolyte of Bakersfield, California artists like Merle Haggard and even moreso Buck Owens, Dwight is an old-school honky-tonker with a modern perspective.
On his podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe has suggested that there’s no dividing line between honky-tonk and rock ‘n roll. Dwight Yoakam’s career is the proof of this idea. When he didn’t fit in with the urban cowboy scene, he created his own place in Los Angeles’s burgeoning punk and roots rock community, often playing with acts like X, The Blasters, and Los Lobos. He even toured with hardcore punks Husker Du.
Somehow, despite Dwight’s longstanding appeal to listeners who don’t consider themselves country music fans, he’s been described as “too country for country.” In digging deep into the heart of a particular strain of country music, Yoakam has figured out how to remain completely within that space while pushing up against its limits. He’s recorded covers of decidedly non-country songs like Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita,” and Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me,” always in his own distinctive style.
For all the complex musical stuff that Dwight Yoakam is up to, he is, indisputably, a showman. He’s a kinetic performer, and his always-moving figure, clad in denim, his face obscured in the shadows of his cowboy hat, has established him as a sex symbol. Covers make up a big part of his set, and the show is as much about the performance as it is about the songs themselves. The theatricality is not an accident: Yoakam is also an accomplished actor who’s appeared in a number of films (his heel turn in Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade is especially memorable.)
When he took the stage with his band at Capital One Hall (recently opened in Tysons, Virginia) on Jan. 13, he started with the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.” A native of Kentucky raised in Columbus, Ohio, Dwight has described his music as “electrified bluegrass.” I could really hear the mountain music in this cover.
Dwight went to his original tune, “Please, Please Baby,” after that, but the first half of his show was largely dedicated to covers: Elvis Presely’s “Little Sister” (he returned to the King for his encore with “Suspicious Minds”), Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” and several songs by Merle Haggard, “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie From Muskogee.” Introducing the last, Yoakam described how, through a thick haze of smoke on his tour bus, Willie Nelson told him it was his favorite Merle tune. To mix things up a bit, he threw in his original, “Streets of Bakersfield,” which he recorded as a duet with Buck Owens.
Watch the official music video for “Streets of Bakersfield” by Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens on YouTube:
The remainder of the set consisted of Dwight’s own material, with the exception of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man.” Dwight’s songs range from searing rockers — like “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Fast as You,” and “Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” — to slow ballads — like “You’re The One” and “Pocket of a Clown.” The imagery of the last is powerful and specific. There’s plenty of classic country sentiment in tunes like, “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” while songs like “Little Ways” repurpose those ideas for a sound that’s closer to rockabilly. Evocative turns of phrase can be found in just the titles, like “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” which immediately grip you.
Introducing “I Got You,” Dwight told the audience that he doesn’t usually draw from his own life in his songs, but this one was an exception. It’s based on his experiences early in his career, when he would often go to particular L.A. music shops and check out guitars he couldn’t afford. A generous owner allowed him to buy some stuff on credit, which he otherwise would have been unable to afford. He was fortunate, he added, to have never had to pawn his stuff to make ends meet.
It’s difficult to make songs that really hold up yet are also entirely accessible. The language has to be simple, but the images it creates have to be complex and arresting. The melodies have to be distinctive enough to grab the audience’s attention, while not being so alien or unusual as to be unsettling. Sonically and lyrically, Dwight is so smooth that it can be easy to miss just how good he is. There’s a reason he’s won multiple awards, including several Grammys, and been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The show opened with a well-received set by the Reid Haughton Band, fronted by a young, upcoming Nashville artist from Alabama. Haughton is one to watch: his style is close enough to mainstream commercial country to be marketable, but has enough of a rock edge to appeal to crossover fans. He mixed in covers, like Levon Helm’s great southern rocker “Hurricane,” with his own songs.
Throughout the performance, the backing band was fantastic, providing plenty of energy behind Dwight’s vocals. If they’re not “the best rock band in country music” (a statement made about Buck Owens’s Buckaroos), then they’re certainly up there. Dwight may be in his mid-sixties now, but he’s still playing it pure country, and absolutely rocking it out every night.