Dwight Yoakam says his long-awaited new album, 3 Pears, is a collection of songs that fit squarely in the moment.
"I think it expressed the thought that it's just as easy to look for the joy and happiness in life as it is to dwell on the things that are not so happy," says Yoakam. "And maybe it's in response to a lot of folks in the last four years and the struggles with the economy feeling really weighted down."
Seated at a conference table in the CMT offices, cowboy hat pulled low and a worn denim jacket covering his pearl-snap shirt, it's been seven years since Yoakam's last album of original material. His veteran status is beginning to show on the face of the 55-year-old country icon, but a playful twinkle still sparkles in his blue eyes, the skin-tight jeans still fit and his unique wisdom has only grown.
"I think you have to be at least willing to express joy before you can experience it," he decrees.
3 Pears is Yoakam's most recent expression of joy, but its 12 tracks also express sorrow, weariness, passion and a penchant for mischief, among whatever else his listeners glean from the sometimes thickly-veiled lyrics. Meanwhile, its sound veers between straight-up honky-tonk, subdued modern rock and classic country. And all of it bends to the will of his unmistakable twang.
Featuring writing collaborations with Ashley Monroe and Kid Rock, Yoakam says the whole project is indebted to alternative rock musician Beck, who would eventually produce two of the tracks in his home studio. Beck's vibrant connection with music of all kinds was the catalyst that led Yoakam back to the recording booth.
"[Beck's] completely responsive to what you're doing in any given moment," he says. "When I played songs for him the first time, he reacted in an almost visceral way. He literally would pull physically. His body would kind of jerk in reaction to a specific chord change or movement of the guitar."
With that encouragement in hand, Yoakam let his creativity run free, but this album is decidedly his own project. He produced it himself, save for the two Beck tracks "A Heart Like Mine" and "Missing Heart," and agonized over just about every detail of every song.
"I'm not doing things just to be different," he says. "I'm doing what really feels honest in the moment and what feels interesting to me."
The things that are interesting to him now just happen to be a little out there. As a case in point, he says he came up with the album's title track after watching a psychedelically-charged documentary.
"It was based on my watching a documentary about George Harrison's life titled In the Material World," he chuckles. "And he's alluding to being out on the town around London in the crazy '60s. At some point someone slipped he and John Lennon acid. They ended up losing a day and a-half of their life. When he was telling this story in the film, they cut to John Lennon, and he's wearing three pairs of big wraparound sunglasses all at once.
"When it came time to write the title [of the album] I thought, 'Well, in a further wink to his mischievousness, I'll use the word for fruit instead of the word for two.'"
The song, on the other hand, uses the "p-a-i-r-s" spelling, but it is equally whimsical in narrative.
The album's second track, "Waterfall," is even more imaginative.
Over a thumping beat and little else, Yoakam strings lines together in such a fashion that each word is utterly unpredictable. It's almost like a madlib or the result of a child's game of telephone:
"If I had a jellyfish/Bet you we would never miss/A single peanut butter kiss or squeeze."
But Yoakam says the song's chorus does hide a message.
"It's life's lesson," he explains. "To paraphrase John Lennon -- who keeps coming back -- he made the remark once that life is what goes on when you're making other plans. ... Life has its own course."
Then, showing a completely different mood, "Dim Lights, Think Smoke" takes Yoakam back to his days playing on punk rock bills in Los Angeles in the late '80s. Longtime fans will love his signature "cowpony" sound, reminiscent of "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc." or "Fast as You."
The track is actually a cover song written by Rose Lee and Joe Maphis and Max Fidler and is often identified with the Flying Burrito Brothers, but with Yoakam's yelping inflections at the end of key phrases, the honky-tonk barnburner feels like a song he's been singing all along.
"Take Hold of My Hand" is another blast from Yoakam's past. He started writing it 19 years ago before finishing it recently during a writing session with Kid Rock. The two share a passion for music and agreed to try something together after meeting at a Grammy ceremony. Yoakam says he wouldn't have finished the track if not for the country-rock-rap crossover artist.
But Yoakam's life has taken enough twists and turns to know that rehashing his past success won't satisfy him or his fans. Asked if any of his new music deals with getting older, he's characteristically Zen about the idea.
"I don't know. Maybe all of it," he ponders. "There's a lot in there about what I remember now from being a child. I think kids are born with a knowingness, and I think we're all taught to forget what we knew to begin with. So if anything, the album is about trying to remember not to forget what we know and what we have in common with each other."
He's always taken his artistic endeavors seriously -- whether it was music or acting -- and 3 Pears shows that his creative drive is still very much intact.
"I think it's incumbent upon any individual artist to be fully engaged themselves if they expect anybody else to listen, or care to listen, to what they're doing."