"The hippest act in country music."
That's Dwight Yoakam effusing over Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in the liner notes to The Buck Owens Collection. And since Buck seems to have hung up his red, white and blue guitar, the estimation might as well apply to Yoakam himself, who long ago proclaimed his affiliation with Owens' Bakersfield sound -- but who is still, alas, looking for a way to translate his high-country hip quotient into sustained mass success.
In 1993, it looked as if Yoakam were headed in Owens' direction with the platinum This Time and its cache of chart-topping C&W singles. But judging from the lukewarm commercial reception of Gone, his most recent release, Yoakam seems to be right back where he started, stuck between pigeonholes.
Just who Yoakam is and where, exactly, he belongs have always been the questions at issue. Bakersfield country involves more than a small amount of rocking of the honky-tonk variety, and that's something Music City has been trying to purge for years. Identity crises have been a problem for plenty of performers -- Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings -- all of whom have learned to stretch out in the margins and come to some degree of uneasy truce with Nashville or else reject it entirely and move to Texas to keep the industry hounds at arm's length.
But Yoakam, for all his country roots, is more glam-boy than redneck hippie. He moved to California, not Austin. He doesn't wear those hats because they evoke the farm, he wears them because they make him look like James Dean (or at least more like James Dean than he would with once-bald pate exposed). Fashion-wise, only R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills' Monster-era Nudie suits can compete with Yoakam's wardrobe, and you've got to go back to Jim Morrison for the chain of form-fitting leather pants to be complete.
You'd think those flashy fetishes would steer Yoakam toward the rock counter, and they do. But the rock camp isn't used to all those steel guitars and yodeling twangs and waltz beats. And you can't wear a cowboy hat in rock and roll. That's just the rule.
So if you're a prolific (eight CDs in ten years) glam-boy who can't find a solid niche in country or rock, you either make yourself appear pathetic swaying in the wind between the two poles, or you decide that maybe there's not much to lose by doing what you do out on some idiosyncratic tangent. And if you want to throw in some Tex-Mex accordion here, a little trumpet, a soul tune there, some Buddy Holly echoes to draw the philosophical circle in the sand -- well, why not?
That's pretty much what the evidence of Yoakam's work to date suggests he's done. If some CDs are harder to classify than others, Gone is harder to classify than that. A sampler: "Near You" hits on a Holly vibe but still sounds more like Yoakam; "Don't Be Sad" is a plunking country two-stepper with handclaps; "Gone (That'll Be Me)" features another of producer/guitarist Pete Anderson's great bass-string twang riffs and a carnival organ; "Nothing" is the sweetest confluence of Motown and Nashville since Little Richard sang "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"; "Never Hold You" has a "Pictures of Matchstick Men" guitar riff and a Georgia Satellites buzz; "This Much I Know" is a funereal lovelorn lament; "Baby Why Not" pumps a fiddle-and-accordion begging-dog routine that devolves at the end into Yoakam croaking out "Why not, why not, why not" in what sounds like his imitation (no kidding) of Mongolian throat-singing; "One More Night" is majestically delusional; "Heart of Stone" has a thoroughly antique horse-clop of a beat and a doo-wop backline; and the lead-off "Sorry You Asked?" makes use of the same sort of rhetorical self-deprecation dripping from the title of Yoakam's hitless greatest hits package Just Lookin' for a Hit.
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Gone has been panned in some quarters for continuing a Yoakam trend, set with This Time, toward liberally applied production values. It's a criticism based on an assumption that Yoakam is the purist many of his fans project him to be. He's not. He's an experimentalist, and anyone who rules the studio out of artistry doesn't remember that Buddy Holly didn't just write and sing his songs, he layered them with rock's first multitracked guitars.
Purists, no matter how mistaken, aren't likely to be mollified by "Sorry You Asked?" which is such a high-concept song that Yoakam co-starred in a high-concept video for it that features high-grain black-and-white footage shot at a roller rink, Yoakam faking trumpet and (huh?) Harry Dean Stanton.
Go figure -- and you'll have to, because, as usual, Yoakam's not talking. We can't ask him how it feels to be floating out there on some ill-defined border between rock and country. We can't ask him what he thinks of the country-pup upstarts such as Wilco and Son Volt, who've taken on the mantle of "authentic." We can't ask him who shapes his hats, or what the hell Harry Dean Stanton is doing on the Country Music Channel. We can't ask him anything (I can't, anyway) because, according to his publicist (who apparently has a pretty easy job), he doesn't do interviews -- which, I'd like to suggest, is admirable behavior from the hippest act in country.
Dwight Yoakam performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 16, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $17.50 to $37.50. David Ball opens. For info, call 629-3700.