Ambling toward the Ryman and the country-music church's attendant atmosphere of honky-tonk meditation, The Spin looked up at the image of Ernest Tubb that advertises the Texas singer's longtime Lower Broadway record shop. We gazed upon Tubb, and The Spin's mind went blank for a few seconds — not uncommon on a Saturday night. Oh right, we were heading to the Ryman to see Dwight Yoakam, a post-modern country artist if there ever was one, and Ernest Tubb's visage put us in mind of country-music history, that kind of stuff. In a simpler era, Tubb made music about the joys and sorrows of honky-tonk life. Yoakam, on the other hand, is a honky-tonker who is the product of a wildly eclectic era that witnessed some amazing combinations of country, rock and punk — he's an Ernest Tubb for a glamor-obsessed, media-saturated age. Yoakam's synthesis of Bakersfield country and British Invasion rock has often been brilliant, as on last year's full-length 3 Pears.
These days, Yoakam is regarded as an Americana artist, which The Spin thinks is just a bit misleading. Settling into our pew, we offered a silent prayer to Minnie Pearl, Faron Young and Captain Ryman, and checked out the rock-inflected Americana of Yoakam's opening act, The Lone Bellow. The Spin happens to think that is a fairly lousy name for a pretty good band — their brand of Americana amounts to a distillation of why people like the genre, or whatever you call it, in the first place.
For example, The Lone Bellow adds soul-music flavors to their folk-rock — one tune had lead singer Zach Williams stomping his foot to a funky 6/8 rhythm. Drummer Brian Griffin kept the songs moving with an expert touch that was both dynamic and subtle, while mandolinist Kanene Pipkin and lead guitarist Brian Elmquist took turns singing lead when they weren't harmonizing with Williams. With Ben Mars on bass, the band has a firm grasp of dynamics, and they break up their songs' structures with well-crafted bridges and ingeniously designed false endings. The Lone Bellow will probably make it big — Williams is an intense frontman, and such skillful country-folk-rock songs as "You Don't Love Me Like You Used To" seem tailor-made for Americana devotees. Still, The Spin found some of their music a bit mannered. It didn't have much to do with Ernest Tubb, but that's Americana for you.
Yoakam is a great craftsman — almost every one of his songs contains a riff, a chord or a vocal inflection that reveals his formalist savvy. He performed the 3 Pears track "Waterfall," delivering its utopian message with a face that was almost straight. Yoakam communicates with his audience by indirection: Enigmatic behind his hat, he slyly incorporates Lou Reed-style guitar riffs and Beatles chords into his music, but he's far more than a technician or a specialist in pastiche. He did his hit version of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Little Sister," originally a smash for Elvis Presley in 1961, along with Joe and Rose Lee Maphis' "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." His version of Merle Kilgore and June Carter's "Ring of Fire" featured a Rolling Stones guitar lick and piano in the style of Johnnie Johnson, who once tickled the ivories for Chuck Berry. Yoakam & Co. rocked Merle and June's tune — as Yoakam said, "This is a kind of hopped-up version of what they wrote." Still, the originals were equally impressive. "I Sang Dixie," "Blame the Vain" and "Little Ways" sounded like the classics they are, and Yoakam sang them with perfect control.
The packed house hung on Yoakam's every word and cowboy-booted shuffle, and The Spin marveled at his vocal chops — he got into a little Gene Chandler-style soul falsetto on "If There Was a Way." Yoakam's music can be taken in any number of ways, and he may come across as sincere to some listeners while seeming opaque to others. Of course, we like it both ways, and believe that there is an authentic angst in Yoakam's music that ties him to the punk and New Wave artists who came into prominence at the same time he did. If many modern country musicians fetishize the music of the past, Yoakam seems to think the old ways are resilient enough to be poked at, and that insight has informed his work since he began his career in the '80s.
Appropriately enough, Yoakam encored with "A Heart Like Mine," a great slice of reconstituted '60s rock that Beck produced for 3 Pears, and closed out the night with Dave Alvin's "Long White Cadillac." Maybe Ernest Tubb would not have totally understood the context, but he would have almost certainly loved the sentiment.