Dwight Yoakam

Musician, actor and film director Dwight Yoakam has never typecast himself or his music. Yoakam uses the country form as structural support for what he does musically, but then he builds what he calls "doorways" into his structures, offering him an opportunity to escape the genre's limitations.

Yoakam's latest album, Tomorrow's Sounds Today, is a perfect example of moving from room to room within the hard-core hillbilly structure. The album's first single, "What Do You Know About Love," is a slab of modern rockabilly, with a playful, rocking steel guitar lead. The unrestrained way Yoakam voices the lyrics makes the song sound optimistic and full of love's first promise. The way he quizzes his would-be love is particularly engaging: "Hey baby, what do you know about its first blush / Honey, what do you know about the caught-up rush?" Yoakam's phrasing emphasizes the lyrical content without calling attention to itself.

The best of the 14 tracks is "Free to Go," thanks to the performances of guitarist Pete Anderson and pedal steel guitarist Gary Morse. With the possible exception of George Strait's Ace in the Hole Band, Yoakam has the best backing group in the business. On top of simple, snappy drumming, Anderson and Morse lay down clean, clear licks, the kind that Nashville labels would pay thousands to wring out of studio hacks.

Another jewel is the Buck Owens-penned "I Was There," a duet between Yoakam and his Bakersfield idol. Loosely referencing the old gospel song "Were You There," Yoakam, an under-rated vocalist, captures the way Owens phrases the song and perfectly complements him.

But for a trip through one of Yoakam's "doorways," you'll need to cue up his version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," which was little more than a throwaway back when it was a hit in the '70s. But Yoakam manages to turn the confection into a meaty pop-country standard.

No contemporary country singer can phrase a hillbilly song like Yoakam. On "The Heartaches Are Free," he turns in a dead-on Hank Williams homage. And check out his Elvis Presley phrasings on "A World of Blue."

For those who love hard-core country, this is one of Yoakam's best albums in a while. In fact, it's one of the best hard-core country albums in a while, period.

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Aaron Howard