When Dwight Yoakam returned to the stage for an encore last summer in Seattle he came by himself, carrying an acoustic guitar. He’d done a riveting three song solo acoustic turn mid-set, which included a turbo-charged “Mystery Train,” and no-one seemd to mind a bit when he came back out without his band, the Babylonian Cowboys, for another five song solo set. As he finished up with “Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room,” a murder ballad all the more chilling for the spare accompaniment, the fella sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Man, I could listen to this all night.” Well, with the release of dwightyoakamacoustic.net, a solo acoustic album that clocks in at a whopping 78 minutes, he now has the chance. It may be both more and less than he bargained for.
Yoakam is arguably the finest hard country singer of his generation, he certainly makes the short-list, and among those rare contemporary country performers who’s also an ace songwriter. dwightyoakamacoustic.net, just the man and his Gibson revisiting 25 songs from his catalog (save for the gutty slide guitar of long-time running mate Pete Anderson that embellishes “Little Sister,” which also happens to be the only song not written by Yoakam, though he’s long since made it as much his own as Elvis’), distills Yoakam to his honky-tonk singer/songwriter essence.
Stripped to bare bones, the sharpest songs in his book—“Buenas Noches,” “Two Doors Down,” “Sad, Sad Music,” “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me”—owe no apologies to the country canon, and his performance none to precursors Frizzell and Haggard. But, as fine as they are, it’s hard to hear how these versions, or Yoakam’s re-takes on things like “Lonesome Roads” or “Throughout All Time,” or “Nothing’s Changed Here,” or most anything else in the set if you get right down to it, improve on the originals. Only “Fast As You,” and “Little Sister,” both reworked as slow blues burns, really profit from their return to the studio.
And what works well live in a short set, thanks in no small measure to the charisma of the singer and heat of the moment, wears a might thin spread over 78 minutes on disc. dwightyoakamacoustic.net would pack more punch were it a more economical, discriminating set that left the listener desiring another song rather checking his watch. Was it really necessary to re-record eight of the 10 tracks from his second record, Hillbilly Deluxe? Sometimes more really is less.
Yoakam has put out but one record of new material, A Long Way Home, since the release of Gone in 1995 (at that time his sixth studio album in nine years). Since Gone he’s also served up an ill-advised album of rock/pop covers (Under the Covers), a Christmas record, a hits of the ‘90s package (Last Chance for a Thousand Years), and, now, an acoustic reworking of previously recorded material. Yoakam evidently has the clout with Reprise to release anything he wants at his stage in his career, which is no bad thing for him, and perhaps he’s earned the right to coast. The faint odor of pure product that clings to dwightyoakamacoustic.net is apparently what that right costs his fans.