Country music has a split heritage: rural Protestantism on the one hand, hillbilly hedonism on the other. All those mean little nondenominational churches in the South can’t change the fact that music is great, partying is fun, and getting drunk is restorative and beneficial until it becomes terrible. Sin and forbearance and all that—it’s how you get George Jones’s music and George Jones’s life. And in its purest form, the genre is workers’ music, poor man’s music, jams out of coal hollers and county highways, every song shadowed by poverty and boring, ordinary disappointment.
Like many cultural phenomena, country flourished when it spread beyond its geographical roots, like how the Brits invented the Anglophone novel but Americans perfected it (1). When the Dust Bowl and then World War II drew poor whites (primarily Appalachians and the Okies) out west, country music got California all over it. Despite its financial capital and production heft, Nashville doesn’t have shit on Bakersfield. In turn, Bakersfield needed Los Angeles, the urban hub just over the mountains through which country’s best tendencies were distributed. When the genius who is the subject of today’s post went to Nashville at the dawn of the Reagan era, saw a bunch of New South rhinestone schlock, said “Fuck it,” and moved out west, he was copying dudes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, pursuing his own version of the n’er-do-well proto-punk aesthetic that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (two artists who never really fit in the South even though they were Southern boys, as JC emphasized by stomping out the floor lights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965) had articulated.
Dwight Yoakam settled in LA in the 1980s, developing his style in shitty punk clubs and similar dives, and dropping his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., toward the dismal end of the Reagan years (1986). One of the best country debuts ever? Survey says YES. It’s the creation of an Appalachian transplant who liked tight jeans as much as he dug Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Creedence, AOR pop singles, and the Carter Family. Country music? Grimy at heart. (See above.) Los Angeles? Grimy at heart and in all the other ways.
But he wasn’t some subaltern master that America didn’t ever appreciate: Yoakam was huge in the late 1980s and 1990s, selling out stadiums and hogging the airwaves. Indeed, he was a Boyd family staple in our blue Ford Ranger. His videos dominated the limited space MTV gave to country artists, and while I wouldn’t call them cool (some of them are downright terrible), compared to what Garth Brooks and his headset were subjecting America to, Yoakam’s grunge-hunk look is tight enough to redeem all but the worst media rollouts (2). In general, these pleasant visual adjuncts underscore his ability to write fantastic pop songs (3), much like his physical doppelganger and stylistic cousin Tom Petty.
His first five albums did serious Billboard-chart damage, and they are all great, but the one I keep bumpin’ in my jalopy is Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. My own dear favorite track is “South of Cincinnati,” but the title-ish song “Guitars, Cadillacs” offers a better idea of what makes Yoakam’s best work so fascinating and inventive. The song is fun with a sad edge. In other words, it is like the better parties you’ve been to lately. Have a weekend, LA and beyond.
1) Unfortunately it also works the other way around, as when white people grow dreadlocks.
2) For a demonstration of how standards of taste and style are historically contingent, watch the video for Yoakam’s enormous (and still awesome) hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Most of it is perfectly adequate cable-TV fare, but there’s a shot around 1:40 that is titanically, hilariously awful; I need someone to make me a GIF of it. The lady’s hair-toss!
3) The most beautiful musicians can make accessible music, even pop music, if they want to. Examples: Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Chopin’s piano bits, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Brian Wilson, Jay Z. Something is missing if an artist’s work is always difficult, just like if it were constantly enjoyable only on an unreflective, immediate level. High art isn’t continually highbrow. Jane Eyre exemplifies this, as do the deft, sad lyrics below, which arrive near the end of “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” one of DY’s singles from If There Was a Way [sic]:
If a tear should fall,
If I should whisper her name
To some stranger I’m holding
While we’re dancin to an old Buck Owens song,
I know she won’t mind
She won’t even know–
She’ll be dancing with a memory, crying teardrops of her own.