Dwight Yoakam is a purist and a reactionary, but that doesn’t make him any less of a rebel. Despite his old-school Bakersfield twang and unabashed reverence for golden-era honky-tonkers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Yoakam has never been a retro act, nor has he ever stooped to hokey parody or knee-jerk stylistic detours. When he began performing in the early ’80s, the Kentucky-born Californian was the darling of the nascent cowpunk scene, sharing the stage with fellow LA insurgents the Blasters, X, and Los Lobos. His 1986 debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., was at once a classic-country triumph and a raised middle finger to the punishing hegemony of Nashville, which had all but obliterated trad twang in the service of bland crossover pop.
Nashville hasn’t changed much in the past two decades, and neither has Yoakam. What makes him radical is his devotion to the traditional; even his take on Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” sounds like a long-lost Lefty Frizzell number, or at least something Lefty might have covered had he lived long enough. Listeners who equate artistic development with the compulsive reinvention of the self won’t find much to admire in Yoakam, whose talents have only ripened over the years. The less fickle among us will be grateful that some artists care more about delivering the goods than spewing out hits for contemporary-country radio or spoon-feeding ledes to jaded critics.
Blame the Vain, Yoakam’s newest CD, doesn’t sound like a dramatic departure, but it does mark a couple of significant changes: It’s his first release for New West and his first without Pete Anderson, the brilliant producer/guitarist who worked with Yoakam over 21 years and 17 albums. Assuming production duties for the first time, Yoakam wrote all 12 of the songs and performed them with a fresh cast of supporting musicians, most notably the thirtysomething hotshot Keith Gattis, whose searing Telecaster leads invigorate even the weepiest of ballads. Legendary Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall and former Ventures guitarist Gerry McGee make memorable guest appearances, adding depth and variety to a crack band of seasoned country veterans.
Notwithstanding the personnel shake-up, Blame the Vain won’t disappoint loyal fans. Yoakam continues to mine the same sonic territory but with a new playfulness and sense of purpose. With its pealing guitars, incandescent harmonies, and Beatlesque chorus, the title track is a classic Yoakam heartbreaker — self-mocking rather than self-pitying, sad but never depressing. True to form, Yoakam pays homage to his mentors without slavishly mimicking them. “I’ll Pretend” cribs the chug-a-lug momentum and sprightly minimalism of “I Walk the Line” without coming off like a total Johnny Cash ripoff, the pedal-steel-drenched “Does It Show” sounds like vintage Haggard, and Yoakam channels the King himself on the hiccuppy barn-burner “Three Good Reasons.” From the ambrosial Jimmy Webb-inspired string arrangements of “The Last Heart in Line” to the schizoid tempo shifts of “Watch Out,” Yoakam proves that new insights can emerge from time-tested templates, and the results are consistently satisfying.
Despite a couple of goofy missteps (the proggish synths and spectacularly awful British accent that open “She’ll Remember” are good for a few yuks and not much else), Yoakam understands where his genius lies: in that supple, high-lonesome croon and the exquisite melodies he crafts to showcase it. Blame the Vain won’t catapult this hillbilly visionary to commercial stardom, but Nashville’s loss is our gain. The Ford-shilling, tank-top-wearing, industry-issued Clear Channel hustlers can smolder and preen all they want; Yoakam is the real deal.