Blame The Vain
There are three major epicenters forming the Bermuda Triangle of Country music: the glittery money sheen of Nashville, formed by the seismic ripples erupting out of Memphis, motherland of us all way back and its mother, the hills of Kentucky; Austin, TX, trashy cousin of Nashville that believes he's a better person because his hands are dirty and his back hurts from a hard days work; and Bakersfield, CA, the refugee camp of the country music outlaw, where the dream of dusty dives and shitty day jobs becomes a reality of dusty dives and shitty day jobs. These three beacons cast their beam across the whole of the triangle, which like its notorious ship-eating cousin, is a largely empty vortex that mysteriously devours the lives of those that venture there, leaving only tales in the wake. The stars in the country constellation tend to gather around one of these glowing suns, losing their personal trajectories for undeniable orbits, often becoming a satellite of a dying sun.
And then you have Dwight Yoakam. He manages to run the circuit between the three, picking up the habits and refactoring them into his own brilliant take on country music. His Buck Owens humor and drive embody the Bakersfield sound while he unapologetically applies that Nashville polish that makes a great country song glow like a new table from Ethan Allen. The trick is that he inserts enough of the Austin country-poet-king authenticity shtick to make his albums transcend the the trap of the pack of cookie cutter country bohunks who have spent about as much time in the saddle as the Wu-Tang Clan. And then, on top of whatever boring semiotics he works into becoming "Dwight Yoakam" he has one of the silkiest voices this side of George Jones and one the funkier hiccup swaggers since Elvis and a crack band that will make any one of you get up a bust a two-step.
His latest Blame the Vain comes at a shift where Dwight broke with his longtime producer to produce this himself, and craft the best album he's done in eons. From the gate, the title track sets the stage for what you are going to hear, the infinite jangle of acoustic rhythm guitar, the desert wind of organ, the eagle soar of pedal steel and cosmic heartbeat on the drums. And his unstoppable voice and lyrics (this album eschews his usual effective habit of making awesome country epics from pop songs like he did with Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" for original songs). There are a hayload of great twangy tear jerkers like "Lucky That Way" and the classic "Does It Show?"
Does it show as I watch her walking by?
Does it show that I'm trying not to cry?
Does it show, that's he's the reason why?
Does it show that every smile is a lie?
There are also a number of great hilarious rockabily rave-ups like "Intentional Heartache" where he stops every once in a while to holler at the troublesome Connie who is spraypainting his cowboy boots and dancing on his Dale Jr poster in a fit of straight up revenge-fueled meanness.
Other classics are the heart-wrenching "Just Passing Time" and the rollicking paene to denial "I'll Pretend." Lyle Lovett, the other semi-legitimately country star its still cool to like, once compared Hank Williams to Neil Armstrong, in that he was brave enough to venture into the uncharted territory of Facing Failure and Loneliness in "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", and fellow cosmonaut Dwight revisits that same mission objective on nearly every song here. An oddball number is the ELO synth and fake-Roger Daltrey rant at the start of "She'll Remember" was a studio goof that they liked so much that they kept it, but fortunately the song proper is killer, with those rhymes that only a great country song can justify doing.
One other notable sickout is the last song "Last Heart in Line", an acoustic and strings ballad (What is with all the string sections lately? I'm not complaining, but is there a glut of cheap cello players on the market?) "Last Heart in Line" which gives the album its schmaltziest but ultimately finest moment.
There comes a time in every young person's life when they realize that they've been to four different strip malls, listening to the new catchy but inconsequential cd from some Cute Band Alert reject, munching on a bland Subway sandwich in the car while their over-priced latte, untouched from the first stop, begins to curdle in the cup holder, that he or she realizes they need some country music, something "real" and don't know where to turn. Country radio is an abomination of music, and those countless box sets of classics are great in theory but usu sally tiresome in practice. Alt-country barely exists anymore, and its not what you are looking for. My recommendation is to get this CD, and let the whole thing wash over you like one of those supposedly clear mountain streams you hear about. You will be a new resident in the Country Music Camp for a couple days, and should it not really take, your heart will remain warm from your time spent there on your next trip to Starbucks.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com