Photo by Anna Lisa

Dwight Yoakam has always been difficult to fully comprehend. An unusual mix of swivel-hip Hollywood cool and straight-ahead country tradition, Yoakam clawed his way out of the joints and into national fame by blending sharp-tongued denunciations of Nashville with a brash, up-tempo brand of West Coast country. The fact that his music was pretty much radio-taboo only underscores Yoakam’s unstoppable drive, and today, with total sales reaching 20 million albums and the recent release of his ninth Reprise disc, Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, the Kentucky-born honky-tonk man, an eloquent and oft-outspoken individual, is at a point in his career where stylistic growth should carry equal weight with reflective self-examination. The new album brilliantly extends Yoakam’s ebullient hard-country formula, and makes clear that his songwriting has reached a new apex for subtle, ironic wordplay, but there’s an underlying detachment that favors lyrical fiction over personal intimacy, placing forceful grooves above up-front expression. However stunningly crafted Tomorrow’s Sounds Today is, it never breaks through the outer shell of the Yoakam paradox into the bloody guts within.

Yoakam is a genuine country-music force, and the only post-Haggard California-based performer to sustain national success. He made history in 1988 by wooing Hall of Famer Buck Owens out of retirement and back into the studio for the first time in a decade, and recently added another first to his pedigree, becoming the only country singer ever to script, direct and star in his own movie, the yet-to-be-released Western South of Heaven, West of Hell. His recorded output has been as steady as it is consistent, and his previous acting stints, lest we forget Sling Blade, are just as well-regarded. When Yoakam nails it, as he has numerous times, and notably with 1988’s cold-blooded murder ballad “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room” and the profound melancholy of 1997’s “Come on Christmas,” there’s little room to gripe. Hell, he’s even affiliated with a commercial venture called Bakersfield Biscuits — how much more country can a cat be?

Well, come to find out there is a little bit yet to confront. Country music at its best has invariably driven its performers to perilous brinks, and those very traps and snares inform and broaden the music’s messages. While some cave in under the weight (Mel Street’s suicide, Gary Stewart’s self-imposed exile), others turn the tables to produce memorably searing works of art. Albums like George Jones’ I Am What I Am and Merle Haggard’s Serving 190 Proof were the direct results of the artists’ working lives, each a series of exquisitely wrought personal metaphors designed as much to please fans as they were to confront the neuroses and fears that plagued their creators. Such commercially risky career moves are priceless, but there are precious few performers willing to drop the mask.

With the new album, Yoakam makes a convincing case for his inclusion in the country pantheon, and he’s about 90 percent perfect. Songs like “Dreams of Clay” and “The Heartaches Are Free” reach for the somber depth that characterizes country music’s finest, but then give way to fluff (a cover of “I Want You To Want Me,” the throwaway doggerel of “Alright I’m Wrong”). Overall, the melodies, producer-guitarist Pete Anderson’s arrangements and the band’s gleeful bite are exhilarating, and Yoakam’s vocals even exude a degree of warmth on certain numbers, which comes as a relief. For here lies the singer’s main stumbling block — a sometimes chilly reserve that undercuts the emotion of the lyric, and in performance can be anything from mildly baffling to completely off-putting. This gap between mastery of composition and facile delivery raises a few issues, and Yoakam, while apparently reluctant to discuss these questions, recently answered them. Sort of.

In a phone conversation the day after he tore through a nine-song set at a Burbank honky-tonk benefit event, Yoakam seemed off-kilter. For the better part of an hour, the conversation barely existed. Asked what he considers his role in country music to be, he answered, “I don’t.” Asked how he has strengthened artistically over his career: “I don’t know.” Long pauses alternated with boilerplate interview recitations, relieved by lapses into mutual country gossip and fandom.

After nearly 20 years of touring and recording, Yoakam is in a position to reflect on the artistic life of a country star. This is a staple subject that has produced crucial numbers like Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up the Tempo” and Merle Haggard’s “Footlights.” Where is Yoakam’s soul-searching classic? “I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t written it as of now, but that’s not to say that I won’t. I don’t really feel compelled to indulge in articulating the doldrums of the road. When you’ve done it for this long, it becomes a kind of synthesis of unconscious behavior. I just don’t think it’s productive to do a lot of analytic observing . . . you’re not going to be all things to all people, and I quit trying to do that a long time ago.”

Yoakam’s vocal style, a pitch-shifting brand of pyrotechnics bristling with curlicues, feathering, and odd slips and slides, has, rather than maturing into a more subtle, graceful approach, neither altered nor advanced over the years, a point Yoakam disputes: “I think it’s evolved, in terms of range and comfort with singing, with approach to recording.”

What about that frosty distance onstage? “Well, it’s probably just the nature of who I am. It depends on the environment. I tend to drop into the music and take the journey with each song. I’m just doing what feels right in the moment. If it seems distant, it may just be something that’s going on inside. Performing, it’s the externalizing of very internal experiences . . . I wouldn’t say I’m introverted as a person, but I’m certainly not an extreme extrovert.”

Yoakam good-naturedly acknowledges the reality of that dichotomy when talk turns to his pal Buck Owens: “[Buck and I] are, in ways, the antithesis of each other.” The friendship recently took a dramatic turn when Yoakam’s South of Heaven, West of Hell film shoot in Texas ran out of cash, and Owens bailed Yoakam out. Doing business with Owens can be toxic, as Merle Haggard discovered in the mid-’60s when he asked his then–song publisher Owens for an advance. Owens agreed, on the condition that Haggard would sell him half of “Sing Me Back Home.” As Haggard wrote, “It was later I found out he’d already received a check for more than I’d asked for — all mine. It had been in his desk while he was talking to me.” (Haggard sued and won.) So what’s it like to take a million dollars from Buck Owens?

Another pause. “The film has been its own experience,” Yoakam says. “It was actually beyond what was stated, financially; those are very inaccurate numbers. I don’t consider it ‘taking’ it from him, either. He basically funded the largest portion of the film, and it was done with mutual respect. I mean, shit, without him it would’ve been a huge disaster, to have to walk away from something when we were left by the previously committed partners with no way of ever completing the film. So he behaved as a friend, really, and I’ll be forever in his debt for it.”

Yoakam’s fallen behind in the day’s schedule of meetings, but clearly wants to state his case: “Look, the first couple of questions you asked, I honestly feel inarticulate about. This record and these songs are what they are. I just make the music I’m making now, and the people respond to it. That might, in fact, be what I have gained in the last 16 years: the ability to do that in a freer way, and it doesn’t just have to do with commercial success, it has to do with artistic success. I’ve really quit letting external forces have any impact.

“What I’m trying to do is find inspiration in this music every day and every night. When I walk onstage, I want to be as inspired as I can be, for myself and the band, and if I can’t do that, then I have no hope of giving anything to the audience.”

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