BLAME THE VAIN Dwight Yoakam
By 1984 I had been enjoying playing and listening to Country music for over a decade, but as a Jew from New York City I could never totally relate to a genre based in the hardscrabble soil of rural America. Then Dwight Yoakam's A Town South of Bakersfield arrived like an invitation to the party. Yoakam obviously loved Country but, though born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio, he was now an urban Californian and far from straight off the farm. His L.A. cool combined with Detroit-raised Pete Anderson's bluesy approach to chicken-pickin' to show me a Country that I could love AND relate to. In the late 80s and early 90s, artists like Yoakam, George Straight, Randy Travis, and Ricky Skaggs kept me going through an assault of Shania and Garth at their schlock-rock worst. (Garth at his best was actually a pretty good country singer.)
Then the worm turned. After a string of successful singles, Yoakam drifted into acting, directing, live records, cover songs, and greatest hits compilations--in other words, his heart didn't seem quite in it. His co-conspirator Anderson wandered off into a solo career, producing other artists, and running a record label (Little Dog). The New Traditionalist Country of the above-mentioned artists was replaced by the extremes of Southern-Rock Country (see: Gretchen Wilson) and Pop Country (see: Faith Hill) on the one hand, and Alt Country (see: Wilco, Jayhawks, etc.) on the other. Oh, there were still a few retro-tonkers around like Dallas Wayne and Dale Watson, but they were more marginal than the mainstream Dwight at his height.
Now comes Blame The Vain, and from the sound of it Yoakam's brand of high-octane honky-tonk is back. Something lit a fire under him this time and he comes bucking out of the gate with the title tune, spectacular singing and solid songwriting still intact. Yoakam proves to still be the master of all the things that attracted me to Country music in the first place: soulful vocals, solid grooves, and simple songs about the basic, if not simple, things in life: love, family, drinking, etc.
"Lucky That Way," "Does It Show," "Just Passin' Time," and "Last Heart In Line" wring all the permutations out of the classic weeper, with swinging shuffles represented by "Intentional Heartache," "Three Good Reasons," and "She'll Remember." Lest you think that the boy has lost his edge, the latter begins over a bed of synthesizers and pounding drums, with Yoakam ranting in a bizarre British accent at, and about, a woman who has left him. The song eventually reverts to a standard shuffle, changing feel again for the bridge--not entirely successful, but interesting.
Some of the something that has ignited Dwight just might be the cool Clarence White-style B-Bender licks of new guitarist Keith Gattis. Gattis has taken time out from his own singing career to lend a hell-bent-for-leather rock and roll attitude to the pickin' party. Still, it is Yoakam's uncanny pipes that rule the roost. Plenty of the slick young "hat" acts can sing, and the Alt-country bands don't lack for edge (though they certainly lack singers), but my hat goes off to Dwight Yoakam for demonstrating that you can have both great singing and edge, and once again giving me Country music that I can relate to. Michael Ross