Hat's off

Dwight Yoakam's the last great country singer left--and he doesn't need a twang to prove it

When Yoakam self-released his debut EP Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1984, it was clear that while he belonged to the burgeoning "New Traditionalist" movement that was out to rescue country from the suburban cowboys, he was hedging his bets. He sounded like Buck Owens and wrote like George Jones, but his repertoire was big enough to include the likes of Gram Parsons ("Sin City") and Dave Alvin ("Long White Cadillac"). Now he's country merely by association, more comfortable in the company of the Jayhawks than Garth Brooks, but more diverse than either--his new record includes a straight-faced, big-band swing version of the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," in addition to covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles...and Sonny and Cher.

But in the end, Under the Covers is something of a one-off. It has its moments of greatness--including a hellfire version of Roy Orbison's "Claudette," a startlingly overwrought take on Jimmy Webb's immortal pop gem "Wichita Lineman," and a bluegrass redo of the Clash's "Train in Vain"--but it will not sit on a shelf alongside masterpieces like Guitars, Cadillacs; This Time; or Gone.

Those three records, and the ones between them, suggest that Yoakam is the last of the great commercial country singers--the last guy left on radio whose voice you immediately recognize, the last guy left linked to a tradition beyond yesterday's hit single, the last guy left who wears a cowboy hat because he should. There are perhaps a few others out there like him--maybe a guy like Texan Wayne "The Train" Hancock, whose voice conjures the ghost of Hank Williams--but no one nearly as good, as smart, as precise about his craft. Yoakam's as much a part of history as he is a piece of the future, the forward-looking embodiment of a dying craft.

"It seems to me that in the '60s and early '70s, you had singers," says Buck Owens, the country legend Yoakam moved to California in the late '70s to be near. "When you hear Dwight, you know who that is. Most of the time when you turn on the radio, you tell me if you know who's singing that song. I know everybody has to start somewhere, and I have no problem with that, but I have problems with record labels not letting someone develop. They all want another Garth Brooks. But where's Johnny Cash? Where's George Jones? Haggard? Where are the guys you know immediately? Patsy Cline? You knew it was Patsy as soon as you heard it.

"Dwight's one of a kind. Dwight is one of the people you remember. You might remember George Strait and Clint Black and, of course, Johnny Cash and all the guys from my years. But Dwight's the one who will transcend the next generation."

Perhaps Dwight Yoakam was born a little too late. If the AM radio of the 1960s still existed, he might be more than a star--he might well be a superstar, a legend. But instead, he has had to create the sound of AM radio from that era--he has had to become the sounds of his youth.

"I was born in '56, so I heard radio explode in my head as a kid," he recalls now, sitting in his hotel suite and watching the housekeeper tidy up an already immaculate room. "I mean, by '66, man, AM car radio was just a uniquely, historically, amazing gallery of post-World War II twentieth-century cultural expression, y'know? But we don't have that--that moment's gone now. We're back down to this very kind of myopic, segregated, narrow-focused delivery of music, and there are relatively few sources to gain some sort of exposure to an education about the diversity that caused rock and roll to happen, that caused pop music to happen as we know it."

Yoakam, like most of his contemporaries, was raised on a post-Beatles diet, influenced as much by the Ed Sullivan era as by the traditional strains of country he heard coming from his folks' stereo and the hymns his relatives sang around the dinner table in their old Kentucky home. His musical education came from radio--his lectures provided by the disc jockeys who were less concerned with color than with quality, his reading list fulfilled by the hundreds of artists whose music he listened to at night.

Yoakam could have ended up in the Kentucky coal mines (where some of his relatives toiled decades ago) or pumping gas (his father, David, once owned a Texaco station in Columbus, Ohio). But, instead, he untangled himself from his hillbilly roots only to find they still had hold of him. In college he briefly studied philosophy and history, but he knew that was not the world for him; the West Coast beckoned.

The Los Angeles he'd hoped to find when he moved there in 1976 didn't exist by the time he arrived. He went hoping to fall in with the likes of Emmylou Harris, hoping to find the gilded palace of sin the Flying Burrito Brothers built, hoping to preach from the Palomino stage. He wanted to meet Haggard and Owens, even his Northern California hero, John Fogerty. He had gone to Sin City searching for the ghost of Gram Parsons, the man who helped create country-rock when he joined the Byrds for the 1968 masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But Dwight arrived too late: Parsons was long dead, his onetime girlfriend Harris had long since split for Nashville, and the Sunset Strip had gone punk.

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