Since Dwight Yoakam’s 1986 major-label debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., the state of contemporary country music has bettered or worsened, depending on how you choose to view it. While alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo have been populating the fringes of rock from the early ’90s on (the post-modern cowpunk aesthetic was, consciously or not, a product of the proximity of Yoakam’s honky-tonk revitalization in the midst of the L.A. punk scene), the country world has continued to be defined by histrionic pop-star figureheads like Garth Brooks and their unflattering jingoism. On the one hand, you can applaud the now-routine challenge of ornamented complacency by the artists who champion tradition. On the other, more despondent hand, it’s obvious that said complacency is a deep-seated axiom of country music’s indefinite reality.
Yoakam’s hard-angled, traditionalist honky tonk wasn’t in step with Nashville’s glossy, Sears-studio portraiture in 1986, and it’s not likely that things would be any different today — for decades, it’s been nearly impossible to distinguish Nashville’s #1s from the latest Aerosmith power ballad. Late ’70s/early ’80s schmaltz artists like Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, and Don Williams were a far cry from Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the driving Bakersfield sound that Yoakam’s chiseled music unapologetically evoked. Nashville told him so, too: in 1977, Yoakam, an Ohio-raised Kentucky native, relocated to Los Angeles after Music City deemed his music too rock ‘n’ roll for its countrypolitan tastes.
In L.A., Yoakam found kindred spirits in rockabilly-inspired punk bands like X, and soon assembled a stellar backing band, the Babylonian Cowboys, which included bassist J.D. Foster (later a producer for Richard Buckner and Calexico) and shit-hot guitarist Pete Anderson, who would serve as Yoakam’s closest musical confident and producer for almost two decades. First, Yoakam cut 10 demo tracks in Hollywood with guitarist Jerry McGee, all of which are included on Rhino’s deluxe edition reissue of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.. (This is, in fact, the second time these demos have been officially released, following their initial appearance on the 2002 box set Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years.) The demos underscore Yoakam’s clear-cutting voice, a crystal-clear twang that rings atop the hard-driving music. His original songs, ranging from bouts with broken hearts and bottles (“This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me”, “It Won’t Hurt”) to more somber existential reflections (“Miner’s Prayer”, “Bury Me”), sound like they could have been plucked from old honky-tonk jukeboxes in California, Kentucky, or any place in between. Yoakam was an obvious descendent of a since-forgotten tradition (a still-forgotten tradition in the hallways of the Nashville brass, who rejected the recordings), but fresh too, the sound of a resurrected archetype with zero trace of antiquation.
The Anderson-produced Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., an expansion of a six-song EP released by Reprise in March of 1986, only amplifies the booming straightforwardness of Yoakam’s voice, and surrounds it with skin-tight, crackling instrumentation. The rollicking covers of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” streamroll right alongside originals like “Guitars, Cadillacs”, all of it twisted up with scorched emotion and mettle and starched professionalism — in every way, it is exactly what Yoakam’s defiant talent promised. Yoakam’s music, in essence, is a manifestation of the cowboy fashion he wears: pronounced but not too ostentatious, tapered but not constrictive. This is the stuff meant to compel a movement back to its utilitarian roots, much in the way Cheap Trick and the Flamin’ Groovies had prompted rock ‘n’ roll to drop its theatrical pretensions in the ’70s. The Babylonian Cowboys’ strengths are even more pronounced on the reissue’s second disc, a live show from the Roxy in L.A. taped during the same month as the album’s release that will prove to be the deluxe edition’s most coveted extra for fans. If Yoakam exudes humility in his between-song banter, then his band does the exact opposite, tearing into material like Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”, Hank Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”, and Yoakam’s originals with their buttons buttoned and teeth bared.
1986 was a banner year for country music, ushering in debuts by Steve Earle (Guitar Town), Lyle Lovett (Lyle Lovett), Randy Travis (Storms of Life), and Yoakam — all but one of those artists would buck the slickest demands of country’s trends. Upon its release, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. was a hit on the country charts, reaching #1 and spawning three hit singles: “Honky Tonk Man”, “Guitars, Cadillacs”, and “It Won’t Hurt” went to #3, #4, and #31 respectively. Travis’s record, however, fared even better, selling in excess of three million copies and becoming country’s barometer of style for the remainder of the ’80s. If, in fact, the status quo continues to reign supreme in the Nashville machine, then it’s all the better for artists like Yoakam. Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. is the reason why: a conspicuous record that stands in stark contrast to the anthemic soundtracks of xenophobic suburbia raging around it, a still-modern revisiting of a classic style that can’t help but give country a good name.