Country Music

Radio Play or Not, Dwight Yoakam Is One of Country Music's Greatest Treasures

With a few key exceptions, these days it isn’t the good artists who get all the press and airtime on country radio — it’s the jackwagons who make country music look like the butt of some redneck joke. As such, you probably haven’t heard much of Dwight Yoakam’s Second Hand Heart on your favorite country station. In fact, you’re probably more likely to have heard a track from the album on NPR than on 93Q.

Among those who have paid attention to Second Hand Heart, the album is quickly emerging as the prime candidate for the best country recording of the year. It is, in the purest sense, classic Dwight Yoakam, a return to all the retro twang that made him such a standout in the early 1990s. Yoakam has aged, but the sound has stayed almost entirely intact, and that’s something that we should all be truly grateful for.

If you look back at Yoakam’s disappearance from country radio in the mid-1990s, it would be easy enough to chalk it up to the genre’s dramatic lurch toward pop. As country moved to the middle to appeal to the mainstream, nuances like Dwight Yoakam’s signature warble and unparalleled ability to evoke emotion got left behind somewhere. That somewhere is unfortunately country’s less popular second cousin, Americana.

As a country fan, it’s pretty disenheartening to see your favorite (and the genre’s best) artists pack their shit and leave for more obscure pastures. And leave they have. To be sure, artists that have produced the best country music of the last ten years are flatly unwilling to identify with the label. Even Yoakam himself has flirted with the Americana world; in 2013, he won the Americana Music Award for Artist of the Year.

Equally talented as a lyricist, musician, and vocalist, country fans are downright ungrateful for Dwight Yoakam. To put it bluntly, we just don’t deserve him. Sure, Second Hand Heart peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot Country Albums charts, but that has nothing to do with support from anyone actually inside the country music establishment. Instead, it was buzz built by SPIN, The New York Times, and online streaming services.

In fact, this won’t have been the first time that country music has snubbed Dwight Yoakam. In the mid-'80s, his sound was dismissed as “unmarketable” during the heyday of the “urban cowboy sound.” Later, in the mid-1990s, he disappeared from radio, as the genre lurched toward a more slicked-up, pop-driven sound. He’s been nominated for more Grammys and Screen Actors Guild Awards than Country Music Association Awards, and that’s a damn, dirty shame.

As a result, we certainly can’t blame him for running off to the welcoming arms of the NPR crowd. This totebag-loving scene is a fanbase for which Yoakam is an entirely appropriate fit. The lines between country and Americana and folk and rock are progressively becoming more blurred — evidenced by Jason Isbell’s domination of all four scenes earlier this year with the release of Something More Than Free. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it meant that influence would infiltrate the mainstream.

The split between “traditional” and “pop country” has long been predicted, but perhaps the loss of a legend like Dwight Yoakam is the final blow of that murder on Music Row. There was a time when countrypolitan, pop-crossovers, and authentic country tunes could peacefully co-exist on the country charts. It’s not as if Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, two dudes who have always been decidedly left of mainstream, haven’t ever had hit records or won awards or anything. That time has clearly come to an end.

That is, of course, unless the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music give Yoakam the recognition that they’ve owed him for years. Maybe next year, he’ll sweep every damn category and I’ll happily eat my words. As much as the success of Chris Stapleton inspires hope for the future, the sad reality is that he isn’t a monolith, and no one artist can change this genre that is in some serious trouble.

And that is all our faults, perhaps because we refused, as country fans and as record-label execs, to make guys like Dwight Yoakam feel like a part of this genre. Every fan who claims to “hate bro country” because he or she is “only interested in the good, old-school stuff” who didn’t buy a copy of Second Hand Heart (or don’t already have your ticket to Friday's Arena Theatre show) is just as to blame as Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line and terrible hip-hop samples for ruining country music.

Dwight Yoakam and special guest Matt Whipkey perform 8 p.m. Friday, December 4 at Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Fwy.
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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.