Dwight Yoakam Rocks Out In the Round as the Original Urban Cowboy

Dwight Yoakam
Arena Theatre
December 4, 2015

The last time I saw Dwight Yoakam he was in a huge arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, and although he wasn’t a thousand miles from nowhere, he did seem a thousand miles from me, and I remember that he hardly moved a muscle as he went from song to song.

But Friday night at Houston's Arena Theatre, Yoakam seemed more in his element with the more intimate theater in the round concept —everyone gets to see him more up close and personal, eventually, which is a treat since Yoakam is an artist who can seem pretty remote, well known for his reticence and reluctance to give interviews. But tonight he seems relaxed, gets better as the set goes on.

Yoakam’s band offers a little bit of Vegas with their silver-sequined jackets; even he has a band of sequins with musical notes crossing his long jean jacket. He still wears jeans so tight that you have to look away, but then you don’t, because there is a lot of leg action at all the right moments in many of the numbers. Thank goodness he didn’t get rid of his signature twists, his in-and-out footwork, his circles with a raised guitar.

Along with his white boots in winter, you are glad Dwight does things HIS way, and when he starts off with “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” from Three Pears you have a moment of relief that he is the same Dwight Yoakam that you knew decades before, except that his voice is the same and hasn’t worn out. It gets so predictable when artists constantly “reinvent” themselves, making terrible decisions like that time Tim McGraw collaborated on that rap song. Yuck.

I can’t tell if Yoakam’s hair is still blonde or sort of gray, but who cares? He’s still got it. And by that I mean he can be cowboy stoic in his demeanor all the while crying over the cruel things someone has said to him, and all the plans that went awry. He slides effortlessly between songs — few breaks at all — and you hear the echoes of rockabilly that are not too over-the-top but entertaining nonetheless, the Elvis-like appeal of mainstays like “Little Sister,” the western despair of “The Streets of Bakersfield.”

You forget what a great songwriter Yoakam is until you hear lyrics like “You don’t know me but you don’t like me” and what that really means, along with the idea that “guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music” are really the only things that can keep him “hanging on” after being taught “new ways to be cruel” by some misguided girl. So glad it didn’t work out with her.

Whether singing something newer from Three Pears or the newly released Second Hand Heart or the older classics in his oeuvre such as “Honky-Tonk Man” or “Fast as You,” you notice that Yoakam doesn’t have to try too hard — he has been in the end zone before. It’s nice watching someone who is no rookie have new songs that you like, but plenty of classics to rely on for good measure.

Yoakam gives shout-outs to his former collaborator and friend Buck Owens, does a fun cover of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and thanks Houston for all the support from fans and KILT. But what you realize at the end of the show is that Yoakam integrates blues, rock and even ballads into something that only the most versatile of singers can muster. Like Linda Ronstadt, he can sing country and western, and even more if he wanted to, but you don’t have to be all worried that he is going to try and be someone he is not, thank you very much.

The highlights of the show were “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” because those are two of the most perfect songs ever written, and represent the best of Yoakam’s songs: the hurt of the stoic cowboy, who tells you he has been crying but won’t ever let you catch him in the act. “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” is so believable you can imagine the lyrics even being spoken, but thank goodness Yoakam actually sings them instead of speaking them as has become fashionable among the country singers on the radio who cannot actually sing, so they sometimes default to the spoken word

Yuck. Yoakam would never to that to his audiences. Just sayin’.

It’s cowboy stoic at its best, and you don’t want it to ever be politically corrected by any consciousness-raising group, amirite?

The drinking songs are fun, but the songs about love gone wrong are delicious, the stuff you really cannot give up. “Dreams of Clay” from Second Hand Heart is as bad as it can get, by which I mean as good as it can get, or let me put it this way: Dwight Yoakam Perfection. “So I forget about plans I had/ For me and you.” Oh Dwight, please reconsider.

I don’t know who broke his heart, but we are lucky we have all those sad songs about how “love can toss you down,” so we can watch him just TAKE IT and then sing about it without being all overwrought about it. Part of Yoakam’s brilliance is that although he could probably sing anything, he doesn’t. Instead, he writes songs that fit his voice.

Yoakam lacks pretensions and hasn’t sold out, and has enough cowboy stoicism about himself that when he shakes his head or indulges in a smile it is downright thrilling. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he hasn’t slid entirely into pop-country or a People magazine type of celebrity that distracts from the music. He doesn’t give it all away — instead lets the songs speak for themselves, and they say a lot, even if in a simple (yet emotionally profound) way.

Yoakam’s cover of “Ring of Fire” was so original it took me a minute to recognize the song, and that is not a bad thing. He made it his own, and employed his trademark understatement to contribute to the element of surprise that many of his songs have.

As I watched him rock out in the round at the Arena Theatre, I had a moment when I didn’t want it to end. Sometimes you can’t get enough of cowboy wistful, and there was plenty of mournful to go around. No one sounds like Dwight Yoakam, and you cannot say that about every singer, especially if they have achieved some level of popularity — there are usually mimics. Yoakam is the original urban cowboy, but smarter and without all the forced affectation of whatever John Travolta might have made us think that was.

When he says “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” you say, okay, two out of three, and when he wants to give a girl a whirl, you want to say yes. When he played “Suspicious Minds” for the final encore, what can I say? I was caught in a trap, I couldn’t walk out, because I love Dwight Yoakam too much, baby.

Doni M. Wilson teaches English at Houston Baptist University.

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