Dwight Yoakam: Guitars, cadillacs and Bakersfield Biscuits are the only things that keep him hanging on. Courtesy photo
His career has offered few surprises, but Dwight Yoakam remains a model of country consistency

On his latest album, Population Me, Dwight Yoakam shares vocals with Willie Nelson on a song called "If Teardrops Were Diamonds." If you have listened much to the snug-jeaned crooner over his 18-year recording career, you would be excused for wondering why Yoakam even bothers with the song's supposition.

Year after year, record after record, Yoakam has converted heartbreak into hard currency, playing the dour, jilted lover with enough doggedness to embarrass Otis Redding. But unlike Redding, Yoakam is no Mr. Pitiful. Somehow with Dwight, you always get the sense that he's getting off on his own misery, that it's his way of connecting to the legacies of heroes like Hank and Lefty and Merle.

Still single at 46 - after high-profile relationships with the likes of Bridget Fonda and Sharon Stone - Yoakam's most enduring relationship has been with country's tear-in-the-beer tradition, and it's a bond that's provided mutual enrichment.

When Yoakam emerged in early 1986 with his debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., the stripped-down, honky-tonk feel of his music was so alien to a Nashville establishment peddling lush, middle-of-the-road dreck from people like Alabama and Eddie Rabbit, it felt positively avant-garde. In fact, Yoakam's early videos first aired on MTV's weekly indie-music show, 120 Minutes, providing him a cache with the rock crowd that he has never completely lost.

Sometimes a traditionalist can look like a revolutionary, and that was the case with Yoakam. In a way, he was to country music what a young Wynton Marsalis had been to jazz or a young Bruce Springsteen had been to rock. All three were highly ambitious and idealistic - to the point of zealotry - about their respective genres. Also, all three were cultural throwbacks, alienated from modern musical trends. Springsteen looked to Orbison and Presley, at a time when art-rock was the rage; Marsalis emulated Duke Ellington and early Miles, completely rejecting jazz' turn to fusion in the '70s; Yoakam, for his part, wanted to be Buck Owens, the Bakersfield maverick who told Nashville to stick it, and still managed to churn out one country chart-topper after another.

Because, like Marsalis and Springsteen, Yoakam did a lot of conceptualizing about his work before he got a record deal, he has been a model of artistic consistency. Going over his two greatest-hits collections, you're hard-pressed to find a bad song, a tentative performance or a misguided production choice. He is so in tune with his own strengths and his own limitations, he's like a musical John Wayne, refusing to do anything onscreen that is at odds with his established image.

Sure, many of his best - and biggest - hits have been written by others: "Honky Tonk Man," "Little Sister," "Streets of Bakersfield," "Long White Cadillac," "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose," "Suspicious Minds," "Ain't That Lonely Yet," and his new single "The Back of Your Hand." But that's also part of what has made Yoakam so solid. He has always surrounded himself with a peerless band (including the incomparably brilliant Pete Anderson on guitar), great producer (Anderson), and first-rate material - and it never seemed to matter to him whether that material came from him or someone else.

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For all his success, though, he remains strangely enigmatic. Although he is probably more responsible than anyone else for kick-starting the roots music resurgence eventually known as Americana or No Depression, he has never really fit in with that insular, underground movement. Conversely, for all his success on the country charts over the years, he's never fully meshed with the Nashville crowd. He has always been a bit too California - though he was born in Kentucky - and a bit too disdainful of the mainstream-country machine.

The downside of Yoakam's unerring sense of craftsmanship is that he's been fairly predictable, something of a human honky-tonk jukebox. When he covered Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" in 1999, part of the miracle was that it sounded more authentically rockabilly than Freddie Mercury could have dreamed, and the other part was that he had turned it into just another Dwight Yoakam track.

The biggest surprises in Yoakam's career have come from non-musical ventures: his hatless portrayal of a white-trash monster in Slingblade, his unsuccessful foray into directing with the neo-Western South of Heaven West Of Hell, and, most recently, his marketing of food products like Chicken Lickin' Chicken Fries and Bakersfield Biscuits.

But, realist that he is, Yoakam always realized that he was a musical preservationist, not an innovator. He recently told Country Weekly magazine that he hopes that he and his band have been "a bridge," that they have "been a part of exposing people who might never have heard it otherwise to hardcore country music." Without question, he's accomplished his mission. •


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