Dwight Yoakam w/The Lone Bellow***SOLD OUT***Country
By now, Dwight Yoakam’s mixture of Bakersfield country and British Invasion rock seems like its own genre — the singer sounded in control on last year’s full-length 3 Pears. The Kentucky native specializes in sleek formalism that displays a glamorous sheen, as on the 3 Pears track “Missing Heart,” a brisk foray into folk-country. Meanwhile, “Trying” is a rocker that reminds me of something off Marshall Crenshaw’s country-flavored Downtown, while “A Heart Like Mine” — one of the record’s two collaborations with Beck — is a tip of the cowboy hat to The Rolling Stones circa 12x5. For all his syncretism, Yoakam knows how to turn country tropes to his own purpose: “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” will satisfy any of your lingering honky-tonk urges. 3 Pears stands tall with Yoakam’s pioneering late-’80s work — here’s a country singer who really knows how to exploit glamour’s false allure.
Pikeville KY | Country
Few entertainers have attained the iconic status of Dwight Yoakam. Perhaps that is because so few have consistently and repeatedly met the high standard of excellence delivered by the Kentucky native no matter what his endeavor. His name immediately conjures up compelling, provocative images: A pale cowboy hat with the brim pulled low; poured-on blue jeans; intricate, catchy melodies paired with poignant, brilliant lyrics that mesmerize with their indelible imprint. Then there’s Yoakam the actor, who seemingly melts into his roles, impressively standing toe-to-toe with some of the world’s top thespians: Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage. Add to that Yoakam the entrepreneur and you have a singular talent without peer.
Yoakam’s latest Warner Bros. album, 3 Pears, exemplifies his ability to incorporate multiple, competing influences into a piece of cohesive art. It balances his country core with a fiercely independent embrace of rock, Americana, pop and soul. It blends Yoakam’s respect for his musical predecessors with the collaborative assistance of modern singer/songwriter Beck, who co-produced two tracks, and current rocker Kid Rock, who co-wrote the hooky opener, “Take Hold Of My Hand.” But most importantly, 3 Pears builds on his trademark edginess with a notable, growing positivity.
“The music just kind of dropped in, in that way,” Yoakam reflects. “Music is a bit of a mystery. Like all emotions are. And I think maybe it was something I needed to express and to share with the world at large, something positive when all of us are kind of carrying around this collective, emotional weight.”
Much has been written about the Kentucky-born, Ohio-raised Yoakam being too country for Nashville when he first sought out his musical fortune in the mid-80s, but the truth is his music has always been too unique, too ruggedly individualistic to fit neatly into any one box. Like the icons he so admires – Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Buck Owens – Yoakam is one of a kind. He has taken his influences and filtered them into his own potent blend of country and rock that honors his musical predecessors and yet creates something beautifully new.
Produced by Yoakam, 3 Pears demonstrates that spirit, coalescing around buzzing guitars and vulnerable ballads as he explores the emotional extremes of his musical persona, all delivered with a revealing honesty. “Heart Like Mine” puts a country garage-band spin on a classic pop/rock melody, while “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)” – written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and closely associated with the Flying Burrito Brothers – is thrashing, 21st-century cowpunk. “Waterfall” takes an unusual, dreamy stab at embracing intimacy, and “Long Way To Go” – presented first as a gently chugging lope and later reprised as a stark piano/vocal performance – elegantly refines the concept of personal commitment. “Trying” surrounds an ultra-sensitive vocal performance with a ragged, soulful production.
The witty title track, which opened the flood gates to Yoakam’s creativity, was inspired by George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the Martin Scorsese-directed film bio. One scene found John Lennon horsing around in three pairs of glasses, and Yoakam was immediately struck by the late Beatle’s mix of zaniness and serious intent.
“I got to thinking about innocence and happiness,” Yoakam says. “There’s a certain nonsensical element to the song, but it was through that that I turned a corner. It allowed me to express some true, deeper feeling.”
Yoakam’s relentless search for truth has firmly connected him with a large, loyal following. A long-time Los Angeleno, Yoakam has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, placing him in an elite cadre of global superstars. Yet the sales have never come at the expense of his musical integrity. Whether singing about the twisted wreckage of romance, the broken dreams of this hard life, or the burgeoning optimism that marks 3 Pears, Yoakam brings a knowing, glorious edge to his delivery and stands, in a world of artifice and flash, as a beacon of authenticity.
His debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., set the tone as critics and fans alike responded to a new voice that arrived fully formed with no contemporary rival. With those 10 songs, full of twang and truth, Yoakam led the New Traditionalist movement, though he was never confined by that role. The New York Times’ Peter Watrous, in fact, confirmed Yoakam’s status beyond his obvious importance to country: “He fits into a general cultural reinvestigation of things American, including jazz and grassroots rock-and-roll.” From the start, it was clear this jaded, often inscrutable troubadour could put a voice to our thoughts, expressing them better than we ever could.
He has 12 gold albums and nine platinum or multi-platinum albums, including the triple-platinum This Time. Five of those albums have topped Billboard’s Country Albums chart with another 14 landing in the Top 10. More than 30 singles have charted, with 22 going Top 20, including the incomparable hits “Honky Tonk Man,” “Please Please Baby,” “Little Ways,” “I Sang Dixie,” “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” “Fast as You” and “Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” He’s won two Grammys and earned a staggering 21 nominations.
As stellar as his recordings are, Yoakam’s live performances are transcendent. Upon his appearance at the Kentucky State Fair in 2006, the Louisville Courier Journal’s Marty Rosen declared that “in his best moments, Dwight Yoakam ranks with the scant handful of country singers (or, more accurately, singers in any genre, from opera to blues) who can legitimately be called geniuses.”
The potency of his performances makes him a much in-demand guest on the television circuit. So much so that he holds the record for the most appearances by any musical artist on the top-ranked The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
But the music only tells part of the story. Over the last 15 years, Yoakam has carved out a niche as one of the top character actors on film.
Starting with a role as a truck driver in John Dahl’s spicy film noir Red Rock West in 1992, Yoakam was an instantly mesmerizing presence on the big screen. However, nothing prepared viewers for his riveting appearance as the malevolent Doyle Hargraves in the Academy Award-winning film Sling Blade, for which he and his co-stars were also nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s award for outstanding performance by a cast. In David Fincher’s box office hit Panic Room, as the brilliantly underplayed antagonist Raoul, Yoakam once again seamlessly shapeshifted in front of our eyes. As David Smith wrote for the BBC, “…the film is stolen by Yoakam.” His performance in Tommy Lee Jones’ Cannes Film Festival award-winning The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was effusively praised for its penetrating honesty. Entertainment Weekly’s Sean Smith told USA Today, “As a character actor, he disappears into his roles. There’s something amazingly natural about what he does. All his characters have this tense undertone to them.”
As he does in his music, Yoakam nimbly transcends categorization as an actor. He displayed his vast range while portraying the hilarious Pastor Phil alongside Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn in the broad comedy romp, Four Christmases. He delved into darkness with his role as the infectiously eccentric Doc Miles in the Jason Stratham pictures Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage. And he proved comedically stubborn in a divorce-negotiation scene in the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson picture Wedding Crashers.
Yoakam’s ability to fuse multiple genres in music and to work in a variety of formats in movies led Time magazine to call him “a Renaissance man” and inspired author Don McLeese, in Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, to dub him “a visionary beyond time.”
Yoakam’s journey is, by admission, not a straight path. But it is one that feeds the essential premise of his art. His unique musical and theatrical efforts are different facets of Yoakam’s singular devotion to discovery of himself and the world in which he lives. “You search for a sandbox,” he says, “and just have fun in it.” Few have the ability to make so many sandboxes uniquely their own.
The Lone Bellow
Brooklyn NY | Country
Zach Williams, the Lone Bellow’s lead singer and principal songwriter, can pinpoint just about exactly when the Brooklyn-based group serendipitously willed itself into being. It was around 9 a.m. one morning in 2010, at Dizzy’s Diner in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where the Lone Bellows guitarist and Williams’ old friend Brian Elmquist was working a shift. Williams, up to then performing as a solo artist, needed a place to try out some new songs; for a scuffling artist, the diner was as good as any rehearsal space. He asked fellow singer Kanene Pipkin, just returned to New York City from living in Beijing, to meet them at the diner and the trio did more than merely jam. With the beginnings of a repertoire and an already strong communal spirit, that fateful morning they became the Lone Bellow. As Williams recalls, “Three songs in I realized I should quit what I’m doing and just make music with these people.”
And that’s what he did. The trio’s self-titled debut disc is exuberant in its playing, welcoming in its attitude. Though the lyrics have a melancholic undercurrent, the tracks are more often rave-ups than ruminations, with swelling three-part harmonies and rousing group-sung choruses, especially on the electric guitar-driven “The One You Should’ve Let Go” and “Green Eyes and A Heart of Gold,” a we-will-survive anthem that could be about a family or a band. Indeed, there is a strong familial feel to The Lone Bellow, a recurring theme of inclusiveness.
That sentiment lies at the heart of the album and Williams’ own career to date. The native Georgian first came to songwriting via near tragedy. While still living down south, Williams’ young wife was catastrophically injured in a horseback riding accident. Physicians initially told Williams that, at best, his wife would leave the hospital a paraplegic. But doctors at the pioneering Shepard Center in Atlanta thought otherwise and after months of rehab there she ultimately regained the ability to walk. Throughout the ordeal, Williams had been scribbling his thoughts into a journal; good friend Caleb Clardy, co-writer of “Teach Me To Know,” suggested he turn his writing into songs. The couple’s friends had rallied around them, practically living in the hospital waiting room with Williams, organically becoming the support group he needed. Williams admits, “That was the first time I really experienced somebody trying their best to carry someone else’s burden. It was very moving to me. I was going to classes on how to bathe and feed my wife, and I was trying to process all the fear and anger and the numbness. I started reading my friends these journal entries. I was writing in a kind of rhyming form because it helped to keep my mind focused. Caleb said, these are songs, man, you need to learn how to play the guitar and sing at he same time.”
Having experienced something close to a miracle, a revitalized Williams and his wife decided to head to New York City and pursue their creative paths in earnest. Several of their friends, equally motivated, chose to follow, and they reformed a tightly knit community in Brooklyn, where everyone settled Williams initially worked as a solo artist, backed at times by a hired band. Two years ago, following a soul-searching trip he’d taken with his wife, Williams re-emerged with a stack of deeply personal songs -- tender but frank tales of romantic rupture and hard-fought redemption -- rooted in the country, folk and gospel of his Southern youth, and that’s the material he brought to the diner.
Along with the core group of Williams, Pipkin, and fellow Georgian Elmquist, the Lone Bellow’s recording and touring ensemble now includes Ben Mars on bass, Brian Murphy on keyboards, Matt Knapp on lap steel and electric guitar, Jason Pipkin on banjo and mandolin, and Brian Griffin on drums. After a warm-up gig at Brooklyn’s Roots Café, Williams got a call from The Civil Wars, the Grammy Award Winning duo that he’d befriended while they were playing at the Lower East Side’s Rockwood Music Hall. They asked if he and his new cohorts would open for them in Philadelphia: “We rehearsed for three days straight to try and get our act together and went to Philly and played our first real show as a group. It was so life giving, everything that everyone was playing had the overarching values of honesty, friendship and vulnerability, I felt like we really connected with this group of people in Philadelphia who’d never heard of us before.”
Willams met with Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock when the Lone Bellow played the Bowery Ballroom and took him to the Rockwood, the modest but well-regarded two-room venue that Williams had long considered his musical home: ”When Charlie came up, I said, let’s walk around the block. I want to show you the venue. The owner, Ken Rockwood, was there and they just hit it off. Charlie was walking around, snapping his fingers close to walls, looking at the glass windows in front of the large room, and he said, ’You should make your record here’. Ken gave us the room for three days and three nights. We lived there. Our eight-piece band recorded twelve songs there and Charlie magically made them something worth listening to. I will never forget that experience.”
Peacock captured the spirit and the sound of these individuals, both at their most confident and their most vulnerable. Their recording of “Teach Me To Know,” an infectious folk/gospel sing-along, was the by-product of some spontaneous late-night carousing, according to Williams: “We were ten songs in, I was exhausted, my vocals were completely gone, it was like one a.m and it started pouring down rain. Our piano player Brian ran outside and lied down on the sidewalk. So we all ran outside. Two of the band members started dancing in the rain and the rest of us started running around Allen Street with our shirts off. It was a beautiful moment. And while we were out there being dumb, Charlie set up the mics completely differently. When we came back inside, soaking wet from the rain, he said, we’re recording ’Teach Me to Know’ right now. And we laid it down. And that was the way it was making this record. It was all about capturing moments. We didn’t play to a click; we were just in it. It was absolutely wonderful. I felt like the city just soaked through the windows into the recording.”
Afterwards, Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Elmquist joined Peacock down in Nashville for overdubs and fixes with some additional players at his studio, the Art House – an abandoned old church he had retrofitted on a small piece of land – and that location proved to be as well-suited to the band’s sensibility as the Rockwood. The results of their efforts, the Lone Bellow’s debut, are earnest, inspiring and fun. Everyone listening – and undoubtedly singing and stomping along – will surely feel like part of the family too.
-- Michael Hill