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.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, he found an equally esoteric place for himself in Hollywood, playing a number of creepy, left-of-center characters that seemed to fly in the face of the image of calculated country cool he’d cultivated over the preceding decades. Without his trademark cowboy hat hiding his face, Yoakam managed to disappear into countless creeps and baddies who all seemed a far cry from the man as represented on record.
But at the heart of all these personas rests a theme near and dear to the country music tradition in its purest, truest form: heartache and sadness. Deriving largely from the blues, country music as originally intended documented countless instances of love and loss, life and death, sadness and longing. Well before tractors, pickup trucks and cheap beer came to dominate the form in its more pop-leaning 21st century iteration, country music was deeply personal and full of emotion.
Character studies that went straight to the heart of intimately relatable elements of the human condition, these songs allowed those singing to take on the role of the everyman. While instantly recognizable as country music stars, they possessed an accessibility and sense of worldliness that transcended the contemporary notion of a star and made them more relatable, more flawed, more human. It is within this more humanistic, fallible tradition that Dwight Yoakam continues to operate.
Forgoing trendy topics designed to cater to a specific lifestyle aesthetic, the songs on Yoakam’s Second Hand Heart possess a universality that could appeal to a far broader spectrum of listeners than that of the majority of contemporary country performers. With nearly every song shot through with love and loss, these are by no means lyrically uplifting songs. But, as with even his most reprehensible characters, Yoakam manages to enliven each performance with a lightness and a sense of fully-formed character that allows them to be far more accessible than if they were delivered in a more traditional, for lack of a better term, “sad bastard”, setting.
Where “Off You Mind” could have easily slipped into maudlin territory, it instead adheres to a traditional country beat, heavy on the two and four, and carries with it a lighter tone that, coupled with the brisker tempo, helps enliven the somewhat tragic nature of the lyrics. Put all together, the listener is afforded the ability to brush off the dust and get back on their feet, much as Yoakam’s narrator has. It’s an embracing of the more unfortunate moments in our lives, coupled with the realization that it’s ultimately up to us to make the best of a situation.
Operating in a similar vein, “Liar” is a scorching rockabilly-styled number that again finds Yoakam’s narrator coming up short in the love department but ultimately being okay with it, able to put his feelings into song with a driving beat and scorching guitars. Who needs therapy when you’ve got songwriting? Only on closing number “Vs of Birds” does the tempo dip into slightly balladic territory, adhering to the same basic structural template as 2003’s overlooked gem, Population Me.
Proving himself yet again as a solid interpreter of the songs of others (see the countless stellar covers he’s sprinkled throughout his albums over the years), Yoakam turns up the amps and cranks the tempo to re-imagine “Man of Constant Sorrow” as something far more upbeat than any of its numerous previous performances have ever attempted. It’s this honoring of tradition within a contemporary framework that helps make Yoakam such a vital, necessary force in country music.
By continuing to do what he does best, Dwight Yoakam, with Second Hand Heart, adds yet another excellent album to his nearly flawless catalog. Esoteric and wildly iconoclastic in all the best ways, Yoakam is country music’s unheralded champion who understands its true importance and significance within a broader cultural dialogue. Whether or not he’d ever want to admit as much is another story entirely, but in the meantime, he’s having a hell of a time having a hell of time.
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