Dwight Yoakam recorded Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., his debut record for Reprise Records, back in the late 1980s, when radio country music was awash in self-parody and music-by-numbers arrangements. And, I'm here to tell you, it felt like a giant cresting wave sweeping across the desert when I first heard it. A landmark in the growing alt-country sub-genre (but also a massive hit with mainstream country, too), that album remains on the essentials list.For Second Hand Heart, his 19th studio album, Yoakam has returned to the label that gave him his start.
Dwight Yoakam recalibrated his career with 2012's 3 Pears, returning to his former home of Warner and reconnecting to the nerviness of his first albums. With Second Hand Heart, Yoakam continues this unfussy revival, sharpening his attack so the record breezes by at a crisp, crackling clip. Once again, he's reviving himself through reconnecting the past but what gives Second Hand Heart life is specificity, both in its songs and sound.
Nearly 30 years into his career, Dwight Yoakam has little to prove to anyone. Country radio has long since lost interest in the throwback honky-tonk sound that the 58-year-old has held true to all this time, nor is he going to get a courtesy invite to shake things up on the stages of Coachella or Lollapalooza. That hardly seems to matter to this Kentucky-born legend.
Dwight Yoakam has always been a bit of an anomaly. A staunch traditionalist who proudly flew his Bakersfield-sound flag in the face of a more commercialized approach to country music following its full-on foray into pop/rock territory, Yoakam never traded on his loyalty to his heroes for commercial gain. Garnering a staunch critical following, he proved himself the heir apparent to the throne of Owens, Haggard and the like with a string of solid albums steeped in the lyrical country tradition.
At this stage, Dwight Yoakam has nothing left to prove. The numbers tell a persuasive story: 25 million albums sold, 21-time Grammy nominee, 12 gold and nine platinum or multi-platinum discs … he even holds the title as the most frequent guest on the Tonight Show. And that’s not including his acting in TV and films. Still, it comes as a slight surprise that Yoakam is on a sort of comeback.
Artists dependent on tradition as muse and subject gamble on fate. Eventually the marketplace will deal — so they think. Well, Dwight Yoakam has won twice. After a hell of an ’80s run, he spent the ’90s in Hollywood and released distracted albums before 2003’s superb Population Me marked his return.
Dwight Yoakam’s 16th studio album finds him tacking toward fundamentalism and leanness, looking back not only to the honky-tonk of his recording youth and the influences that showed up then, but also to ’60s pop and British Invasion rock ’n’ roll. The former gets reprised by a hillbilly take on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the Roger Miller-esque wordplay (set to a loping shuffle and the singer’s exaggerated drawl) of “Off Your Mind,” and “The Big Time,” a song that’s so gone-Elvis you can almost hear the lip curl. The latter comes mostly in touches and flourishes: the Beach Boys vocal soar on the chorus of “In Another World,” the Byrds-cum-Righteous Brothers vibe of “She,” the hillbilly rock-’60s Stones cross of “Liar,” the “Suspicious Minds” cop on the intro to some otherwise vintage Yoakam mope, “Dreams of Clay.
Dwight Yoakam is a high-concept classicist. He inhabits an era and geography all his own, a remembered 1960s California where Buck Owens and the Byrds somehow reigned together in harmony. It’s a place and time where a songwriter’s job — forged from exemplars like Hank Williams and Carl Perkins, polished by the British Invasion and California pop and honed by the impatience of punk — was to capture the deepest emotions in the fewest words, preferably monosyllables.
Something happened when Dwight Yoakam worked with Beck on 2012's 3 Pears. The onetime purveyor of hillbilly honky-tonk rediscovered his inner L.A. Eighties punk and revved his guitars back to where they ring truest. Second Hand Heart, only the lanky country star's second album of original songs since 2005 and his second for Warner Bros.