Watching Dwight Yoakam romp through a taut 90-minute set at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Tuesday night (Aug. 7), it was easy to wonder why the Los Angeles-based country singer has never gotten his turn as entertainer of the year in industry voting.
With Pete Anderson playing all manner of guitars -– and in a variety of guitar styles –- Yoakam and his band cranked out no less than 26 songs, starting with his recent hit “What Do You Know About Love” and ending with a tip of his hat to former Ryman regular Hank Williams via Dave Alvin’s “Long White Cadillac.”
A master of post-modern mixed messages, Yoakam decorated the spare stage with a lava lamp, an illuminated globe, a hanging chair (host to a small, revolving light show). From the rear curtain hung banners proclaiming “2001” and “Sounds” and depicting a woman’s body with audio speakers embedded, an echo of the album art for his most recent release, last year’s Tomorrow’s Sounds Today.
Yoakam dressed in more traditional garb, including cowboy hat, western-cut jacket and his trademark tight denims. His set ranged from re-worked versions of rock tunes — Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” — to hardcore traditional -– “The Darkest Hour,” which appears on the companion soundtrack to his upcoming film, South of Heaven, West of Hell.
Seldom stopping for a breath between songs, Yoakam underlined the fact that he continues to make vital, tradition-rooted music 15 years after his first major-label release. Other country artists who made their entrances around the same time have slowed down or exhausted their creative storehouse altogether. Yoakam forges ahead with parallel careers as a singer-songwriter and a filmmaker and actor.
On the few occasions when he did speak, Yoakam thanked his record label and the staffers — some now departed — who helped advance his career. He also touted his new movie, previewing “Tears for Two” and a song he co-wrote with Mick Jagger, “What’s Left of Me,” both destined for the companion soundtrack coming out Oct. 2.
Anderson was the focal point of Yoakam’s band, adding trebly twang or beefy Danelectro-style runs where appropriate. It’s hard to imagine “Little Ways,” say, without his trademark licks. Elsewhere, the rest of Yoakam’s group contributed mightily –- steel guitarist Gary Morse on “The Sad Side of Town”; Skip Edwards, with B3, on “Home for Sale.” Yoakam himself, with an acoustic guitar, drove “The Heartaches Are Free” and he played nifty electric on “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”
“Fast as You,” the closer for the concert proper, had the capacity audience stomping and clapping. One woman held up her cell phone so a friend could hear.
Yoakam has stayed away from Nashville for the most part, and lately country radio has pretty much stayed away from him. All could benefit from a closer relationship, though Yoakam appears to be doing just fine without industry awards or chart-topping songs.
Opening act Allison Moorer is cut from the same cloth. She has made more noise with an Academy Award nomination than with her fine second album, The Hardest Part. Returning to the venue where she first got the attention of a major-label executive, the Alabama native filled the Ryman with her powerful alto, though she occasionally had to contend with an over-aggressive backing band. Her nine-song set stayed mostly in mid-tempo, where she feels at home. “I love country music,” she said after “The Day You Said Goodbye,” and she was totally believable on songs such as “Alabama Song” and “The Hardest Part.” Country music would do well to love her back.