Country is a weird genre. It’s like folk or R&B in the sense that genre purity makes a little more sense than it does in other genres. Every so often in country and folk, there is a return to something (mostly) more traditional. And there always seems to be a need for it. But, unlike R&B, there’s never been anything (that I am aware of) like Neo Soul, where someone finds a way of both combining some traditional ideas with contemporary music in a way that is both artistically fresh and commercially viable. Instead, in folk and country, you get revivals. And, as I said before, these revivals often feel desperately needed. For someone brought up on the Beatles’ idea of constant artistic progress, I’ve long struggled with revivalism. But in country it does seem to have its place, to a greater degree than in some other genres.
Though I’ve heard many other people credited with starting neo traditionalism. But Dwight Yoakam appears to be patient zero. (Ricky Skaggs predates him but I honestly have no idea about what Skaggs’ music sounded like then.) This album was released as an EP roughly 2 years before it was expended into this LP. Most people seem to agree neo traditionalism emerged in the “late ’80s” making Yoakam ahead of his time, while being very much behind it.
Yoakam is reviving the Bakersfield Sound, which dates to about the same time as white artists started having success with rock and roll (so, um, not the 1980s). His revivalism is very much just that. It’s far better produced than the Bakersfield and Honky Tonk that inspired it but, otherwise, it’s often got very little to tell you that it’s from the early/mid 1980s. From everything I’ve read and heard this stuff was pretty foreign in Nashville when the EP came out and even when this LP when #1. So, if nothing else, it seems to have helped launch a movement.
Yoakam himself is the draw here, obviously. He has a distinct and instantly recognizable voice. I couldn’t tell you when I was first aware of Dwight Yoakam but, honestly, had you asked teenage me to identify Dwight Yoakam’s voice without me knowing it was him singing, I might have been able to do it. There are very few country performers I could have done that for at that time in my life.
The EP was six tracks, five originals and a cover. There are four more tracks on the LP, including two more covers. It’s undeniable that his originals are good. And one of the reasons Yoakam succeeded where other traditionally-inclined performers of his age hadn’t yet (I’m guessing) is because he had good songs in the country tradition.
The covers are, for me, somewhat less successful. I’m not sure what he adds to “Honky Tonk Man,” a song I grew up with. (One of the few country songs I grew up with.) It’s fine but it’s hardly a revelation. Then there’s “Ring of Fire” which appears to my ears as a complete misreading. He’s wearing me down but if I think about the meaning of the song too much his performance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Harlan Howard cover is decent but I also don’t really know the original.
I struggle with figuring out how to rate it. The songs are pretty good and the sound, for what it is, is extremely well executed. But it’s nostalgia. Now, it’s nostalgia in a genre that appears to demand cleansing revivals every so many years and so there’s more value to it than there would be in rock music, for example. But it’s still revivalism and nostalgia; influential, well-done but conservative and with the implicit message that change is bad.