For those of us who were forcibly subjected to '90s country by our parents — who refused to play our Dookie cassettes in the car — it is perhaps awkward to acknowledge the degree of pure ironic affinity we feel nowadays for the likes of Garth Brooks and George Strait. Those and other (C-O-U-N-T-R) Y100 and KKYX forebears had us rolling our eyes in the backseat at the Fajita Junction drive-thru, or en route to a birthday party at Pistol Pete's Pizza, or counting the month's allowance in change we were destined to lose to the Altered Beast machine at Jungle Jim's Playland.
How is it, then, that these days we're to be found howling along at the karaoke bars, practically perspiring with irony, all about the friends we've got in low places and the next moment speaking effetely and insightfully as to which particular craft or barrel-aged ryes and bourbons will presently chase our blues away?
But there was always a man who personified all the snarl and swagger we appreciated from Billie Joe while somehow simultaneously occupying the same parental airwaves as Garth and George. He was as much a part of our youth, some of us, as Kurt Cobain, and as easy to commiserate with, if not on topics such as heroin and masturbation, then on more romantic notions like heartbreak, drunkenness and the imperative belief that all who wrong us will themselves be wronged someday. We'd heard his songs more times than we'd heard Weezer or the Pixies or even the Rolling Stones by the time we had our first kiss or drove a car. I'm writing, of course, of the peerless Dwight Yoakam.
Yoakam never wanted our irony. He was bald as fuck, wore tight-ass jeans and sequined jackets like our moms did. He scooted around onstage like an earthbound David Lee Roth. Still, there was no hint of irony in any of his work. He paired for a duet with Buck Owens when everyone had forgotten who Buck Owens was. He hit with a Roger Miller-penned song 25 long years after Miller had been "King of the Road." He was honky-tonk when the next-most-honky-tonk thing was Brian Setzer. Even now, you find, thankfully, that there is no need to descend into irony or even nostalgia to appreciate Yoakam and the extraordinary catalog of music he's made.
And that's largely because, in a career that has spanned 30 years, the aesthetic has been maintained. In all that time he's usually sung of Cadillacs, occasionally of guitars, and most always of hillbilly music. This mantra, which took him to fame in 1986, has cruised comfortably past both George's tinkle-y electric piano phase ("Marina del Rey," barf) and Garth's Chris Gaines era, with none of the residual personal embarrassment.
He maintained his place in our musical subconscious with a decade-long string of hit numbers such as "Honky Tonk Man," "Little Ways," and "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere," as well as "The Distance Between You and Me," "Since I Started Drinkin' Again," "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose," "It Only Hurts When I Cry" and "You're the One" — these last five all from 1990's incredible If There Was A Way record.
In recent years there have been further hits (2005's Blame the Vain) and occasional misses (2012's 3 Pears). His newest record, last year's Second Hand Heart, is actually pretty good and, like Yoakam himself, remarkably consistent.
He plays at Floore's Country Store this Friday, with support from locals Leopold & His Fiction. If I were writing the set list it would open with "Fast as You" and close with "Ain't That Lonely Yet," with "Drinkin' Again" as a boozy encore. But I suspect each of us, perhaps without even having realized it heretofore, could craft a pretty solid set list of our own.