Dwight Yoakam compares the evolution of his music to that of a painter who moves from traditional forms to abstract expressionism. He refers specifically to a series of paintings by Hans Burkhardt, an expressionist who, in the early 1940s, created a serie. In it, Burkhardt starts with literal forms, then gradually abstracts them until the final work in the series hardly resembles the figures in the first paintings. Seen this way, Yoakam says, it’s obvious that Burkhardt’s abstract painting was purposeful, not just “paint tossed across a canvas.”
Over six albums (plus a greatest-hits LP and a live collection), Yoakam contends he’s done to traditional country music what Burkhardt did to his original figures. “We’ve abstracted from where we started,” he says. “We started at the root form of country music, and we’ve taken that and abstracted it more with each album we’ve done.”
Ten years ago, Yoakam the traditionalist would have condemned adding strings, sitars, trumpets and organs to basic country music. On Gone, his most eccentric and oddly experimental album yet, he does just that, subverting familiar musical styles with unexpected flourishes and odd twists. The Nashville Sound, which Yoakam once blasted but now somewhat mimics, was rarely this surprising or resourceful.
Unlike the Mavericks, whose recent Music for All Occasions attempts to add a modern stylistic turn on the same period pieces, Yoakam remembers to ground his playful arrangements in lyrics with gravity and emotion. The opening “Sorry You Asked,” about a jilted man unloading his frustrations on an unsuspecting friend, shuffles along with a fun-loving bounce when suddenly, and unexpectedly, the blare of a Tijuana-style trumpet interrupts the song. It’s as if a honky-tonk door had suddenly swung open onto a Mexican party. Elsewhere, he adds the most demented vocal of his career to the ending of “Baby Why Not,” then caps it with a slurred, rambling spoken-word sign-off.
“Nothing” sets a ballad to a soulful organ and string arrangement that would make Willie Mitchell and Al Green proud, while “One More Night” sounds like a cover of a steamy, ’60s British Invasion pop hit by Them or The Animals. “This Much I Know,” a stark and stirring ballad about misery and regret, is sung to a martial-like drum soundthe band sounds like it will break into taps at any moment. “That’ll Be Me” is the closest Yoakam comes to returning to the Bakersfield country raveups that started his career, yet it features a mid-section rhythm part that’s more Buddy Holly than Buck Owens.
Take away all the musical trimmings, however, and what remains is still vintage Yoakam: songs of remorse and resignation, told with a shrewd, novel intelligence and performed with unyielding composure. He remains one of the few adventurous artists in modern country with a strong commercial presence, but he also continues to surprise and delight while maintaining a connection to the music that originally established him.
At the beginning of our interview, I ask Yoakam how he’s doing. “As Papillon says as he floats away on those coconuts, ‘I’m still here!’ ” he responds. He laughs loudly as he dramatically draws out the words of the movie character played by Steve McQueen. “The end of that movie floored me,” he says.
Already, before anyone has even sat down, he’s off and running. When he’s being interviewed, Yoakam tends make obscure cultural references and offer intellectual commentary about the origins of songs, inspirational sources for artists, or the subconscious and its role in creativity. He’s as obtuse as his songs are plainspoken.
Explaining his new musical adventurousness, he begins by saying, in his softly mumbled run-on of a voice, “Well, we’re all on a journey, you know? Life’s about a journey.” Pressed, he acknowledges that his musical sources have expanded in the last decade. “It might be different,” he says. “I might not have written these songs that way back then. But that’s like saying I have thoughts and ideas now that I didn’t have 10 years ago. With the information I know about the world now, I hope my thoughts are different. Otherwise I’ve been sitting here oblivious to everything in the world, everything in the universe.”
He doesn’t apologize for decorating traditional music with pop, rock and other styles; he says he simply takes a song where it wants to go. As he told me a few years back, he tends to apply the theory of “momentary absolutism” to his pursuits. Whatever he believes at the moment, he believes absolutely and passionately. Those beliefs and passions may change, but he’ll be just as committed and absolute about his new direction. “I remember years ago we talked about parameters,” he says. “I’m not a prisoner of parameters. The parameters of traditional country music are not holding me in. I chose to work within those parameters at a given time. We’ve been moving those parameters further and further out with time.”
These days, he says, instead of referencing Buck Owens and Ray Price and Bill Monroe, he looks to the varied stylistic smorgasbord of ’60s pop radio for inspiration. “When I was growing up, I could hear Johnny Cash right in front of Sonny & Cher and the Stones and Them, then hear the Statler Brothers sing ‘Flowers on the Wall’ or Henson Cargill do ‘Skip a Rope.’ ” He breaks into the last song, singing out loud while clapping his hand to mimic the clip-clop, offbeat meter of the old pop-country hit. “That kind of variety was stimulating for everyone,” he continues. “All artists could draw on whatever they wanted. I think that’s a healthy climate, for musical artists or visual artists. It’s good to draw stimulation from other people and from sources other than yourself. It’s a conscious act, to open yourself to allow the assimilation of inspiration from all sources.”
Yoakam also believes that getting away from music and focusing on acting has benefited his songwriting recently. “It’s an experience that allows me to maintain enthusiasm for music,” he says. “It’s a form of expression to go to that keeps me stimulated and allows me to come back and feel that music is very vital. Whether I’m good at it, though, remains in question. I hope to be able to continue to develop as an actor.” Yoakam has appeared in the independent movies Roswell and Red Rocks West, and he starred in a play directed and produced in Los Angeles by Peter Fonda. He has also completed work on two upcoming indie movies, playing a “completely despicable” character in Billy Bob Thornton’s Some Folks Call It Swingblade and a killer in Little Death.
Yoakam admits to feeling lighter, looser and less intense than he was a decade ago, when his outspoken criticism of Nashville got him branded a rebel. This new attitude is reflected in his music, which is now more whimsical than before, even though the topics are often severe. Much of the new album deals “in a subconscious, not literal way” with the loss of an aunt he was close to and the end of a two-year-long relationship. He didn’t realize until after choosing the title that Gone indeed summed up the root inspiration for many of his new songs.
“There’s pain, but there’s also absurdity in loss,” he says. “The absurdity is the sense of abandonment we feel. A lot of what we’re doing in this life, a lot of what we do on this journey, is clinging to something that’s not moving, something that’s constant. But what we do find out is that those things are moving, and they ultimately move away from us. I hope both sides are in these songs: that there is a sense of loss and pain, but also a sense that it’s all strange and absurd.”
I love this poem!
OMG! I would love to see this! Let us all know what we can do…
What should happen over the summer...Someone needs to buy Scarlett a pair of cute ballet…
"his soul patch slides off of his face and splashes in his mimosa." made me…
Dark; Deep; Brooding;Brilliant; A Measure of The Sin! A tale of how many decide that…