Dwight Yoakam Was Never the Biggest, but He's One of the Best

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In many walks of life — and particularly in more noteworthy avenues like sports and entertainment – some figures shine throughout their respective careers, but never shine the brightest. From local heroes like Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman to more mainstream entertainers like John C. Reilly and Rachel McAdams, there are those who are universally regarded as great at what they do, but never considered the very best or most iconic in their own field.

Dwight Yoakam is the very embodiment of this notion. Yoakam, who plays Arena Theatre this Thursday, has released five Platinum-selling albums and enough hit singles to warrant several greatest-hits compilations. He has won numerous Grammys and Country Music awards. He is universally regarded as being among the greatest country musicians of his era. Hell, dude has even proven a more than capable actor in films like Sling Blade, Wedding Crashers (one scene, and he and Rebecca De Mornay outright stole the movie) and Panic Room.

And yet, if at any point during his career you had asked, “Who is the biggest country music star on the planet?" Yoakam’s name rarely, if ever, would have entered the conversation. Of course, this kinda fits his overall image. He has never chased the spotlight, and in fact is known for his reluctance to promote or give interviews. As the Houston Press conveyed in reviewing last December’s show at the Arena, he seems a bit more comfortable in a smaller setting, as opposed to a big arena. Simply put, Dwight Yoakam was never the biggest country star in the game in part because he didn’t appear to have much interest in being considered as such.

Part of that stems from the fact that his brand of country — a sort of hip, Bakersfield-inspired, Buck Owens-infused sound — wasn’t exactly a hot commodity when he arrived on the scene in the 1980s. By then, the “urban cowboy” phenomenon had truly taken hold, which ran counter to Yoakam’s flavor of honky-tonk. So disregarded was his sound by the mainstream country-music community that he cut his teeth playing rock and punk clubs in and around Los Angeles before finding mainstream success. Oddly enough, this worked in his favor, and Yoakam’s ability to blend rock and country throughout his career expanded not only his audience, but that of country music as a genre.

Yoakam officially blew up in 1986, when the self-financed Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. launched an independent label. With hit singles like “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Honky Tonk Man” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Yoakam’s debut eventually went double-Platinum and branded him a country crossover superstar. In fact, the video for “Honky Tonk Man” was the first country music video ever played on MTV.

So yeah, Yoakam established his bona fides in the mid-'80s and was without question a star. However, he also had to contend with the likes of George Strait, Hank Williams Jr. and Alabama for the title of King of Country Music. The '90s witnessed more of the same success from Yoakam, who released a Platinum record in 1990 (If There Was a Way) and another that went Platinum three times over in 1993 (This Time). He continued his hot streak of singles on these albums, with the likes of “You’re the One,” “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” He even covered Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds,” and did a fine job doing so.

So it would seem that after sustained critical and commercial success during the latter half of the '80s, which continued into the first half of the '90s, Dwight Yoakam would carry country’s crown. This would be an incorrect assumption, and the reasoning for this can be summed up in two words: Garth Brooks. During a four-year span from 1989 to 1993, Brooks released five smash albums — three debuted atop the Billboard 200 — and not only became the biggest star in country music, but arguably the biggest pop star on the planet; he has since sold more than 150 million records and still sells out every show he plays to this day, despite pretty much taking the past decade off to be a family man. Other artists, like Clint Black, Brooks and Dunn, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain (an absolute supernova in the mid-'90s), soon emerged as well and rode country’s hot streak to multiplatinum status in the '90s.

This is all well and good. Each of the aforementioned musicians should be commended for finding success in a competitive market and making a living through their art. If anything, Yoakam was a pioneer for country types looking to expand their sound and, in turn, their audience. Brooks and Twain might have the sales records, George Strait the Southern good guy cachet and Willie Nelson the cool cred, but there was always something special and unique about Yoakam, who has been riding a minor resurgence lately behind the superb albums 3 Pears, Second Hand Heart, and this year’s all-bluegrass Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars...He might never have been the biggest, but it can certainly be argued that he might be the best.

Dwight Yoakam performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, December 29 at Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. See arenahouston.com for ticket information.

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