The Enduring Uniqueness of Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam is one of those artists that’s always been around my life’s soundtrack. From first listening to country radio in the late 90s to rediscovering old classics to digging way deeper into an artist’s discography, Dwight’s just always been there and always will be.
Ever since the first time I heard one of his songs (if remembering correctly, I think it was “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere”), I have always been struck at how unique he is as an artist. A listener knows immediately that he or she is hearing a Dwight Yoakam song from the first note. Dwight is one of those few artists whose songs I really can’t picture being successfully covered by any other artist without the listener being made to think of Dwight’s original version. It’s the sound. It’s his voice. It’s his attitude. It’s the perfect storm of factors colliding to create a truly unique artist.
Country music artists since the beginning of time have faced the reality of finding their own voice, even the great one’s. Merle Haggard had to find his own sound, not imitate Lefty Frizzell. Ernest Tubb, despite his affection for Jimmie Rodgers’ style, had to find his own voice. Even George Jones was told Hank Williams already existed when he began his career. Imagine a time when Jones and Haggard were told they needed to find their own sound and style. That’s the way it was though, and country music was better off because of it.
But what makes country music so authentic and unique as a genre in and of itself is the simple fact that every country singer for the past 80 years has been born out of imitating the vocal arrangement of just a select few artists, mostly the aforementioned Frizzell, Rodgers, Hank, or Jones. Vocal styles in country music are a rougher version of the croon. Add a little bit of nasal to a classic croon, and you’ve got a country singer.
Dwight, however, is one of the few outliers. No one will argue that artists like George Jones or Merle Haggard are not unique; they are fundamentally trans-formative figures in the history of country music. The fact, however, does remain that Dwight Yoakam, more than any other country artist aside from perhaps Waylon Jennings, is the most unique all-around artist to become a star in the country genre.
Dwight Yoakam released his debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1986 to glowing reviews. To the unassuming listener, it would have appeared that Dwight just shot onto the scene out of nowhere. Even today, some may be unaware of Dwight’s backstory. Dwight’s never really been accepted in Nashville despite scoring hit after hit. Before releasing his debut album, Dwight honed his craft in Los Angeles, away from the Urban Cowboy movement that was infesting country music in Nashville at the time. He played punk rock venues and clubs with acts like X and The Blasters. He was appealing to an audience vastly different than the one that was tuning into country radio. Two great resources to check out if you want to know more about Dwight’s beginnings and career are his interview with Chris Shiflett on Shiflett’s podcast “Walking the Floor” and Don McLeese’s book Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere.
When Dwight got to Nashville, he didn’t feel beholden to those major power players that typically called the shots on Music Row. He knew his audience and which kind of listeners to target. Dwight didn’t rely on big-name producers for his albums. Rather he began an insanely successful (commercial and critical) collaboration with his guitarist Pete Anderson.
The partnership with Anderson, which ended on not the most cordial terms in 2003, is particularly noteworthy. The two balanced each other perfectly for almost twenty years to find a sound that no one else could call their own. Some tried to label it “cowpunk.” But the best music doesn’t always need a label. Dwight’s a hillbilly artist with a punk-rock attitude. It’s important to note that Dwight embraced the hillbilly moniker at a time many in the industry were trying to distance themselves from the genre’s rural roots. No matter how much Dwight experimented with other sounds, particularly in the 90s, he always made it a point to embrace the roots of the genre. Anderson as his producer was exceptional at letting Dwight’s authenticity shine through. It speaks volumes about both men that though their relationship deteriorated, neither is willing to speak an ill word about the other.
Not enough can be said about Dwight’s sound, perhaps the most distinguishable feature he possesses. As I mentioned earlier, no matter the direction Dwight went, his music was hard-core country. But what makes Dwight so unique as an artist is his ability to merge hard-core country with a variety of influences. Nowhere is this more evident than on “ Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room.” Lyrically, it’s a riveting song, and one that sounds like a country music standard from years gone by. Yet it was written by Dwight. Sung by any other artist, it would be a pop song with clear Latino influence. Sung by Dwight, however, and it’s hard-core country done Tejano style. The live performance on Austin City Limits with Flaco Jiménez on accordion is just a piece of art. (And that’s Pete Anderson on guitar).
There’s just example after example to point to. From his first album to now, Dwight’s got the twang and hard-country sound that makes him so unique. Yet he’s somehow managed to keep it fresh and interesting. I mean, he covered Prince’s “Purple Rain” on his latest album doing it bluegrass style. I can’t think of any other artist in the genre right now who would, first of all, think of doing it, and second, actually do it successfully.
Dwight’s gonna keep doing it his way. He’s unpredictable, and in a genre that strives for predictability, Dwight’s a true outlier. You can be sure that whatever project Dwight takes on next will be just as unique as what he’s done before.