If you believe that country music is the authentic expression of real emotions and urgent states of mind, the career of Dwight Yoakam may epitomize the way some artists struggle to make their authenticity known to a world that is not always impressed by it. If you believe that country music is a kind of pop music, you may regard any struggle for authenticity as potentially fatal to the idea of free-floating pop. What got in the way of country's crossover potential in previous eras was its combination of moralism and conservatism. You'll find plenty of moralizing and an essentially conservative musical vocabulary in most of Yoakam's music, but he doesn't betray much angst over authenticity. What Yoakam's career illustrates is that authenticity isn't a matter of being born into a musical culture, though that certainly helps — creators of music worry about the details of their presentation first, and art arises from that attention to idiomatic detail.
I've liked Yoakam's work over the years, and regard him as a figure who really does unite idealistic Americana fans and red-blooded adepts of modern country music. A Kentucky native who grew up in Ohio before moving to Los Angeles, Yoakam came of age at a time when traditional country music was running out of ideas. By 1980, the course of pop country had run parallel to the efforts of such Nashville rebels as Gary Stewart, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Along with Nelson, such scamps and outlaws as Kenny Rogers, Alabama, Eddie Rabbitt and Merle Haggard appeared on the 1980 country chart.
Having attempted to break into Nashville's country music industry in the late '70s, Yoakam found Los Angeles a more congenial place in which to develop his talents. In Nashville, country music comprised everything from neo-traditionalism to outlawism, but what mattered — and still matters, of course — is matching song with performer and working in the manner of the moment. At this early stage of his development, Yoakam sounded like an exponent of an outmoded, bluegrass-influenced way of singing, and his songs were hardly pop country.
That was Nashville, and you can see why Yoakam would have been hard to sell in 1977. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was keeping busy working up variations on Music City's greatest export. Influenced by the honky-tonk music of George Jones, Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell, such '80s rock bands as The Blasters, Lone Justice and Rank and File began to incorporate elements of '60s country into their styles.
Yoakam played L.A. clubs with the country-influenced rock bands of the early '80s, and it could be that Yoakam himself is a country-influenced rock performer — it depends upon your definition of authenticity. At any rate, Yoakam's late-'80s Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room established him as a master of persona, as well as an ingenious record-maker and self-deprecating songwriter. With producer and guitarist Pete Anderson helping to shape Yoakam's post-Buck Owens, anti-Nashville sound, the singer developed a brisk, allusive style that only flirted with retro tendencies.
Gram Parsons had done something similar with country in 1969, on The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin, the album that sums up country rock. Yet Parsons sang like a man who could never reconcile his congeniality with the immorality he saw all around him. A singer of immense charm and a writer of laconic genius, Parsons pioneered the kind of intelligent, experimental approach to country that Yoakam would perfect two decades later. You can draw a line from the Burritos' 1969 "Sin City" to the 1989 cover Yoakam and k.d. lang perform on Yoakam's Just Lookin' for a Hit, which made No. 3 on Billboard's Top Country chart — in its day, Gilded struggled to No. 164 on the pop chart. Yoakam has continued in the moralistic vein of Parsons, but his moralism is tinged with an irony that is even more biting than Parsons'.
I admire all of Yoakam's records, though I don't much listen to his 2007 Dwight Sings Buck, which does seem to overstate what is obvious about Yoakam's influences. I frequently go back to his Pete Anderson-produced 2003 release Population: Me, because Yoakam and Anderson so intelligently recast the sound of the '60s British Invasion and Bakersfield country records they've taken as their models.
In 2012, Yoakam released the excellent — and pop-friendly — 3 Pears, which features the amazing "Waterfall." A song about how idealism is often defeated by irony, it's a strange, shaky masterpiece. It's also funny, and proves that Yoakam understands how inadequate songs are when it comes to describing the kind of reality that we can call authentic. Yoakam has even signed a new deal with Parsons' old label, Reprise, which makes for a nice bit of continuity.