To make a point about a song on his new album Gone, to underline how easy it would be to make a rock song sound like a country song sound like a bluegrass song, Dwight Yoakam uses as an example the works of Swiss-born abstract expressionist Hans Burkhardt. It's a name--along with those of Pablo Picasso, Arshile Gorky, and William De Kooning--he tosses out casually, along with more obvious references like Buck Owens or Johnny Cash. There's no condescension in his voice, no hint he's trying to prove he's no mere citified hick, just an explanation from a man who figures you know these things because they're, well, so damned obvious to him.
"If you start taking figurative painting and shoving left or right of center till it's a bit askew, you start to move to cubism, which then led to abstract expressionism," Yoakam says. (Riiiight.) "It's going from Picasso to Gorky to De Kooning to a guy I'm a big fan of named Hans Burkhardt, and you start realizing that, 'Aah, that's what they're doing.' I used one of Burkhardt's paintings in the artwork for Gone, a piece called Abstraction, because it addresses the issue of context." (OK.)
"Some of his paintings are called 'Progressions,' and he'll take the back of a nude figure laying on their side and begin to progress that on the same canvas until it becomes totally abstract. Then you realize, 'Wow, there you go.' And that's what, in a musical context, we're doing." (I see.)
Of all the things that have been said about Dwight Yoakam--that he's country music's mysterious and brooding sex symbol, he's Buck Owens in the body of Gram Parsons, he's the greatest country singer since George Jones and the finest songwriter since Hank Williams, he's got no hair underneath that hat--it's rarely mentioned how smart he is. Not book smart, not show-off smart, but Yoakam's a prescient and precise man who uses every word to make a point and every point to build his case; there's nothing wasteful about his music, nothing imperfect about his songs, nothing untold in his voice whether he's singing or speaking.
If Yoakam embodies "Elvis' devastating hip swagger, Hank Williams' crazy-ass stare and Merle Haggard's brooding solitude [in] one lethal package" (as Karen Schoemer breathlessly wrote in Rolling Stone two years ago, in the same piece that revealed the much-rumored fact of Yoakam's bald head), if he is as much a rebel image in his skin-tight leather pants and well-worn cowboy hat as he is a musician, he's also the best breed of country-music outlaw. He's the country superstar who's neither purist nor panderer, existing in two worlds but an outsider in both.
Though his success lies with those country radio stations that emit a signal from the heart of Nashville even if they're in Dallas or Atlanta, Yoakam has never lived there; he's a product of the Los Angeles punk scene of the early '80s, having shared many bills with the likes of X, Los Lobos, the Blasters, even HYsker DY. He maintains a friendly relationship with Nashville (he's signed to Warner Bros. Nashville) but only from a distance, recording all his albums in Los Angeles so he can "maintain my perspective in my own way," he says. "And L.A. just happens to be my muse."
When Yoakam released his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. in 1986, it was clear that although he belonged to the burgeoning "New Traditionalist" movement that was out to rescue country from the urban 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"); later, he'd tackle everything from the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman R&B classic "Little Sister" to the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" to Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic "Rocky Road Blues" to Elvis' cheese anthem "Suspicious Minds."
There exists a certain critical theory, which Yoakam neither admits to nor denies, that his career can be broken down into two phases or, more accurately, two sets of trilogies--the last of which concludes now with the release of Gone. The first three albums (Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc., 1987's Hillbilly Deluxe, 1988's Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room) presented Dwight as the would-be country superstar who adhered to tradition as he told stories of his childhood in Kentucky and Ohio and his first impressions of life in Hollywood.
Songs like "Guitars, Cadillacs" (about "a naive fool that came to Babylon and found out that the pie don't taste too sweet"), "Readin', Rightin', Rt. 23," and the classic redo of "Streets of Bakersfield" with Buck Owens charted the young storyteller's growth; he embraced country's verities to the note, but found his voice (a nasal howl, actually, a cross between a yodel and a moan) through which to tell his tales.
The best-of Just Lookin' for a Hit in 1989 marked a halfway point in his career, presenting him as a "neorowdy" (as the Village Voice's Robert Christgau called him) whose hits sounded perfect on country radio but whose best material transcended the definitions of that narrow marketplace. It was a theory borne out by the ensuing albums: If There Was a Way in 1990 and 1993's This Time and now Gone, each of which grew darker in theme and richer in tone as Yoakam expanded his music to encompass further-reaching influences. Now he's country almost by association, more comfortable in the company of the Jayhawks than Garth Brooks.
"I have certain musical foundations, but beyond that I'm not limited to or made a prisoner by musical parameters," Yoakam says. "I think what we're experiencing on the last couple of albums is the expanding of those parameters or eclipsing those earlier parameters that were self-imposed or, rather, embraced by me.
"As disparate as these things seem on the surface, ironically Gone is a more connected album than anything I've ever done in terms of the individuality of each of the tracks connecting it in that way. You know what I'm saying? On previous albums, there were songs where you could hear two or three songs that were linked to each other...but not this one."
Yoakam, like most of his contemporaries, was raised on a post-Beatles diet, influenced as much by the "Ed Sullivan" era as the traditional strains of country he heard coming from his folks' stereo and the hymns they'd sing 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 disparate artists whose music he listened to at night.
"There was a moment," Yoakam says nostalgically of that time. "Radio exploded in the '60s with this cross-pollination that gave us rock and roll and hillbilly music and the black jump blues. It exploded in the '60s with this massive saturation of all styles and idioms of pop music being played on the same radio stations quite often. I could hear Buck Owens right behind the Supremes in front of the Tijuana Brass and right before Them with Van Morrison leading into the Statler Brothers doing 'Flowers on the Wall' back into the Byrds and Dylan on into whatever."
Gone is nothing less than an homage to those memories, an eclectic barrage of styles and influences that play themselves out like some lost signal retrieved from another time. It's distinctively Yoakam but imbued with the touch of dozens of other musicians, heard in the familiar twang of Buck Owens on "Don't Be Sad," the unexpected British Invasion-era rock of "Never Hold You," the Herb Alpert-Tijuana Brass polish of "Sorry You Asked," the sweet countrypolitan strings of "Heart of Stone," the border-town conjunto of "Baby Why Not," the Buddy Holly-gone-Beatles "Near You," and the late-'60s horns-and-orchestral melodrama of Elvis Presley with "Nothing."
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It's a dense, often overwhelming collection of music that "blows by you," to use Yoakam's words, the first few times you listen to it because the album assumes so many other identities it initially sounds as though it has none of its own. Only after a few listens, after you sift through the sitars and strings and Hammond organs and accordions and they begin to fall by the wayside to reveal great songs, do you realize Gone is a thousand brilliant steps removed from Guitars, Cadillac. If that debut album was the product of a young man just learning his craft and faltering with the jargon of his tradition, Gone is the creation of a man who has become fluent in so many other languages.
"The songs on Gone are the echoes that ricochet around my brain and then kind of hurl themselves past my lips in my own interpretations," Yoakam says. "They're also the sounds I hear now in my head. See, these are not literal emulations--it's not a tribute record to a sound, it's not a concept record--it's just what it is. It's as raw as some of the stuff you might hear on alternative radio in terms of how we approached me playing rhythm electric guitar and leaving it out there at a more organic point.
"[Producer] Pete [Anderson] used an analogy I think is very accurate. When we were in the studio and starting to cut the tracks, he said, 'If the last album was the equivalent of an architectural drawing, then this album is probably a watercolor painting.' The beauty of watercolors is they'll flow together, and the real art of the medium is how they maintain their separation. It's a fascinating medium and it's a tough medium because those lines of separation are not always clear.
"On the earlier albums, we weren't writing this chapter. I wasn't setting out at first to articulate these thoughts. I'm at a more expressive place, perhaps. I've done the preface, if you will, I've written that and explained myself musically to use the analogy of this being a language and a vocabulary. Now I'm in the body of the story.