NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Dwight Is Still Pretty Cool

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The fact that Dwight Yoakam is no longer on a major Nashville record label only adds to his stature. How strange to feel that only a few years ago, it would have been sheer heresy to utter such a statement. But — beginning with Columbia Records’ dumping of Johnny Cash in the late 1980s because the label felt he was too old — the veterans of country music have regularly gotten the old heave-ho from the establishment. Willie Nelson , Waylon Jennings , Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton were all turned out into the cold.

Those were only the original superstars. Next came Randy Travis , Steve Wariner , John Anderson and other younger old-timers. Then came a bunch of future old-timers who didn’t get immediate radio hits. Rather than bitching and moaning or filing age-discrimination lawsuits or trying to get tenure on the Grand Ole Opry, most of those artists keep making great music and kicking ass on their own terms. And many have carved out new careers on their own labels or on independent labels.

Yoakam and his new label Electrodisc are now hooked up for distribution with Nashville indie label Audium, which gets my nod of respect for the rock-solid albums it’s put out on Loretta Lynn , Haggard, Billy Swan , Charlie Daniels , Daryle Singletary , promising new artist Rodney Redman and the new solo album by Steve Ripley of the Tractors — among others.

A great measure of Yoakam’s importance to country music is contained in the new four-CD retrospective box set from his previous record label, Reprise. How to explain Yoakam’s curriculum vitae to a non-believer? Well, try this: small-town Kentucky native migrates to Southern California and not only renews the powerful Bakersfield music sound pioneered by Haggard and Buck Owens but also elevates it to a level of its former greatness. And sells a bunch of records along the way. And does it mainly in spite of Nashville.

Dwight has also been one of the few modern-age country stars to convincingly convey attitude as much as music. He does it in his songwriting, in his song selection, in covering songs ranging from Queen to ZZ Top, in his decision to remain outside Nashville and in his fashion. Throughout country music history, clothes have indeed made a statement. The transition from the pioneers’ somber, dark business suits to hillbilly overalls to early garish rhinestone suits to light-colored somber business suits to gingham dresses to jeans and T-shirts to casual ugly-wear has largely kept country music in the fashion closet. Dwight sticks with skin-tight ripped jeans, simple but elegant boots, a tailored and decorated jacket and a well-turned hat. How simple and yet how eloquent.

But his message is mainly in his music. Yoakam has been a carefully balanced link from the past of country music to its present and always hinting at its future. He ranges from Bill Monroe to Elvis , from Buck to K.D. Lang , from Gram Parsons to Kinky Friedman. This first-ever Yoakam box set, Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years with its 87 songs and booklet with many photographs and bio information, is a neat summation of Yoakam’s many contributions.

The first three CDs do that summing up very tidily with little treasures here and there among what you expect to find. You know you’ll hear “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “The Streets of Bakersfield” and a bunch of other hits. But if you don’t have the great accordionist Flaco Jiminez’ 1992 solo album Partners, then you haven’t heard Dwight sing the hell out of Warren Zevon’s chilling “Carmelita,” which should be required listening for any wannabe country singer before they’re allowed to deplane at BNA or cross the Davidson County line on their way into Nashville.

But it’s the fourth CD I’d like to turn to in today’s sermon. There’s some stunning stuff here in these 21 previously unreleased tracks. There’s a string of 10 demo tracks from 1981, long before his recording debut and before his musical collaboration began with Pete Anderson. All 10 of those songs are original Yoakam compositions, and I invite you to listen especially to the inherent greatness in a straight hillbilly song like “Please Daddy.” I had never heard Yoakam’s duets with Kelly Willis before, and their version of the great 1971 George Jones /Tammy Wynette duet “Take Me” is just stunning. For my money, Dwight and Kelly top George and Tammy on this one — although they don’t manage the same effect on George and Tammy’s “Golden Ring.” And there’s a three-set Dwight radio broadcast from 1995, with “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Mystery Train” that is an absolute primer in how to sing country music. The box closes with live tracks from a set at The Roxy in Hollywood in 1986, winding things up appropriately with Hank Williams ‘ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.”

In many ways, Yoakam is the true and only missing link between modern country and the glory years of country’s great troubadours. And he’s still sounding more modern than most new singers we hear today. Memo to major record labels: Johnny Cash’s best work has come since Columbia Records tossed him out for being too old. Could that also apply elsewhere? Take under advisement.