Mention the name Dwight Yoakam to anyone who has paid attention to country music the past 35 years, and the same images come to mind.
Big silverbelly hat. Blue jean jacket. Vocals that conjure up Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and scores of Bakersfield-sound pioneers. Lots and lots of hit singles from the 1980s and 1990s.
And, of course, the tight blue jeans that still draw howls of approval from his female fans anytime he does a twist, twirl or slide across the stage — even at age 62.
Those images capture part of the story, for sure. But the one part of Yoakam’s repertoire that inexplicably doesn’t seem to get its due is this:
The man can flat-out write a song.
He always could and, as evidenced by a couple of new selections performed at TJ’s Corral at Carson Valley Inn on Friday night, he still can.
In an era where the top draws in country music fill 20,000-seat arenas but seldom write their own songs anymore, Yoakam’s body of work stands up quite nicely with anyone in the history of the genre. There’s a good reason Johnny Cash called Yoakam his favorite songwriter all those years ago.
It was on display again Friday night at TJ’s Corral at the Carson Valley Inn in Minden, Nevada, where a couple of new mid-set originals did the impossible: for some fans, they stole the show in the midst of his regular avalanche of hits.
While many in the audience were hollering for “Guitars, Cadillacs” from the get-go, within 45 minutes, they were swaying along with a couple of songs called “Pretty Horses” and “Then Here Came Monday,” the latter of which Yoakam cowrote with Chris Stapleton.
“Pretty Horses” was especially good, and almost sounded as if it could have been recorded by the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers decades ago. That’s not by accident. Yoakam, four decades into this business, remains as reverent as ever in terms of appreciating and keeping alive the music that influenced him.
Those two acoustic songs halfway through the set turned what started as a good concert into a great one as Yoakam and his band roared through 20 songs in an hour and 20 minutes, sending home a happy crowd that endured an early evening thunderstorm before highly entertaining opening act King Leg took the stage.
[pullquote]By going slower, the concert seemed to pick up its pace, and his vocals were the strongest of the night on a crystal-clear sound system.[/pullquote]
With the Chuck Berry song “Little Queenie” in the opening slot that had been all “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” for the past few years, Yoakam set a fast pace early with hits like “Streets of Bakersfield” before swinging into medleys of songs by his Bakersfield idols, Haggard and Owens.
The Haggard songs, including “Swinging Doors” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” sounded especially good. The band, featuring flashy guitarist Eugene Edwards and multi-instrumentalist Jamison Hollister, paid homage to the originals with everything from a fiddle, banjo, mandolin, keyboard, accordion and steel guitar. If you didn’t know better, you could have sworn those guys were Strangers.
Yoakam’s ode to Owens remains sandwiched in “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose.” After he sings the line about “dancing to an old Buck Owens song,” the band lurches into the instrumental “Buckaroo” and two more Owens hits before returning to “Turn It On.” Somehow, it works every time.
While Yoakam always gives his musical heroes their due, it’s his own classic material that brings the show to a climax. “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” as always happens when played in these parts, sounds like it could have been written about the spooky and desolate lands of northern Nevada. “Little Ways” breaks into a singalong, “Guitars, Cadillacs” reminds the fans where it all started and show-closer “Fast As You” still sounds as fresh as it did when it first came blasting out of the radio 26 years ago.
And just to top it off, Yoakam chose “Suspicious Minds” as the encore. He’s done it for so long and so well, you almost forget it first became famous as an Elvis song.
As powerful as the closing punch was, the two “new” songs set them up. By going slower, the concert seemed to pick up its pace, and his vocals were the strongest of the night on a crystal-clear sound system.
And, it left you wondering why such great original material isn’t being played much on today’s country music stations. (You can hear them on Yoakam’s “Bakersfield Beat” Sirius station on Channel 349, however.)
Therein lies the frustration for an ever-shrinking cadre of classic country music fans. Yoakam is often credited with practically lifting traditional country from its grave in the 1980s — keeping all of the classic stringed instruments alive while sending honky-tonk, high-energy songs into the radio stratosphere all those years ago.
These days, you could almost make a case he belongs on a Mount Rushmore of Country Music with a couple of his idols. He’d probably bristle at the thought; he seems quite content making sure the monumental work of those who came before him won’t be forgotten.
So he keeps playing small amphitheaters when he probably should be in arenas, and keeps writing great songs that can’t find a home with commercial country radio stations dominated by truly awful bro-rock. None of this seems to faze him in the least; he has his own radio station now and at a venue as nice as TJ’s, it probably just felt like another great night playing in a backyard-style honky tonk.
He didn’t talk much. He doesn’t have too. When you’ve got such a great catalog of songs (old and new), you really can afford to just let the music speak for itself.
Well, that and his hat. And jacket. And, of course, as any of his female fans would tell you … the jeans.
— Mike Wolcott
- Songs performed by Dwight Yoakam at TJ’s Corral at Carson Valley Inn on July 26, 2019
- Little Queenie
- Please, Please Baby
- Little Sister
- Streets of Bakersfield
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
- Swinging Doors
- Okie From Muskogee
- I’ll Be Gone
- It Won’t Hurt
- Pretty Horses
- Then Here Came Monday
- You’re the One
- Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose; Buck Owens medley of Buckaroo, My Heart Skips A Beat, Act Naturally.
- Honky Tonk Man
- A Thousand Miles From Nowhere
- It Only Hurts When I Cry
- Little Ways
- Guitars, Cadillacs
- Fast As You
- Suspicious Minds