Commercial country music has become so commoditized by its formulas that it’s often difficult to recognize who you’re listening to. Not so with Dwight Yoakam. Not ever with Dwight Yoakam. Not only is his voice a singular instrument, but so is his taste as an artist. Not that he’s ever sat still in a pigeonhole; he’s maintained a throughline of artistic integrity and fidelity to country music’s emotional foundation even as he stretched the boundaries of country with former partner Pete Anderson, lured Buck Owens back to work, and stripped down to solo guitar for the reassessment of 2000’s dwightyoakamacoustic.net. The outline of this latter solo acoustic jaunt is reprised here, but with a twist of bluegrass applied to catalog selections that favor deserving album tracks over hits.
Yoakam’s interest in bluegrass isn’t new - he was born in Kentucky (though raised in Ohio), and he’s recorded with both Ralph Stanley (“Down Where the River Bends” on Stanley’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and “Miner’s Prayer” on Dwight’s Used Records) and Earl Scruggs (“Borrowed Love” on Scruggs’ Earl Scruggs and Friends). He’s had his songs reimagined in bluegrass arrangements, having been paid tribute on 2004’s Pickin’ on Dwight Yoakam, and he’s featured bluegrass arrangements in his live show for several years. But this is the first time he’s settled down in the studio with a bluegrass band for his own album, and buoyed by the first class backing of Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey and Scott Vestal, he finds new layers in eleven of his own compositions and a compelling cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The opening “What I Don’t Know” turns the original’s simmering accusation into an angry holler, and the lead vocal and harmonies of “These Arms” are sorrowful in a different way than the hard honky-tonk of the original. “Two Doors Down” is sung high and lonesome, without the tenderness and redemptive organ of the original or the stark introspection of the earlier acoustic take. As in his collaborations with Pete Anderson, Yoakam leans on his partners for both tradition and invention. His take on bluegrass is similar to his take on Bakersfield (and Bakersfield’s own take on country): knowledgeable, perhaps even reverent, but never slavish. Everyone clearly had a lot of fun reinterpreting these songs, and their spontaneity is infectious; you won’t put away the originals, but neither will you skip these remakes. [©2016 Hyperbolium]