In the 30 years between Dwight Yoakam's debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., and his latest project, the all-bluegrass Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..., the snake-hipped country crooner has chiseled out a complex style that brings in influences from all over yet still maintains a singular sound. For dyed-in-the-wool fans, I bet these are the ones at the top of your playlist.
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986): This bracing blast of boilerplate country was a complete game changer. Country music had suffered through the saccharin lounge-pop era of Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers and other dreckmeisters in the 1970s, only to morph into the Urban Cowboy posing of the so-called New Traditionalists of the early 1980s. With Yoakam's twang-eriffic cover of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man," notice was served. His authentic Kentucky drawl sounded like a hayseed Roy Orbison. The ACMA agreed, naming Yoakam that year's top new male vocalist. He was just getting started.
Hillbilly Deluxe (1987): If Guitars, Cadillacs was the set-up jab, this was the haymaker. Yoakam and his producer/guitarist extraordinaire Pete Anderson had found the way to thoroughly modernize the Bakersfield sound without stripping its simplistic charm. With Anderson's stinging Telecaster lines, spare arrangements and plenty of classic touches like twin fiddles and barrelhouse piano, Yoakam pushed on with songs like "Little Ways" and "Please Please Baby," his own compositions that harkened back to the honky tonk shuffles of Lefty Frizzell and Faron Young. Hillbilly Deluxe is the sound of an artist hitting his stride. The production is pristine but punchy, like much of the roots music in the late '80s. It's the songs that make it timeless.
This Time (1993): Like many Yoakam acolytes, I consider his first three albums a trio under glass—a near-perfect body of work that's as airtight in its sound as it is moving and authentic in its songwriting. But This Time is a horse of a different wheelbase. One reason this album is in my personal top five is that it was one of only a dozen CDs owned by a woman I'd begun dating in Missoula that year. Impressed by her taste in music, I thought she showed promise. Our youngest child starts college next week. "Inside the Pocket of a Clown" revealed a weird side of Yoakam's songwriting, and "Ain't That Lonely Yet," cowritten with Kostas, earned him a Grammy. "Fast as You" furthered the Orbison connection with its "Oh Pretty Woman" guitar hook, and "Wild Ride" rocks with Stones-y swagger. This album gives you the most Dwight for your dollar.
Gone (1995): This was Yoakam's first album to not score a No. 1 hit, but to me it's one of his most interesting—and funniest. "Sorry You Asked?" opens the record with a hilarious exchange between a couple of guys in a bar, one who politely asks how's it going, the other answering him in great detail. "Baby Why Not" is a Tex-Mex romp that fades out over the singer arguing with his stubborn partner. "Hey, don't bite me!" he says. Gone takes chances, explores some new territory and occasionally produces a head scratcher, like the oddly retro "Heart of Stone." Washes of organ and blasts of trumpet provide some unexpected textures that take the music beyond the confines of mere country.
Second Hand Heart (2015): After returning to the Reprise fold with 2012's Three Pears, Yoakam reminded us all that he still has a lot in the tank. He wrote all but two of the songs here, and they dip into a smorgasbord of styles, recalling the '60s pop of Glen Campbell and Jerry Reed on "Dreams of Clay," as well as classic songsmiths like Holland-Dozier-Holland on "In Another World," which wouldn't sound out of place arranged for a Motown artist in their heyday. The muscular Americana feel of "Believe" sets the stage for a trio of breakneck rockers before the album closes with "V's of Birds," a ruminative ballad that updates Ray Price's Countrypolitan sound with mandolin and organ instead of strings 'n' things. Country trends may come and go like hairstyles, but Dwight marches on to the beat of his own rhythm.
Dwight Yoakam plays the Wilma Mon., Sept. 26, with opener Caroline Keys & the Lanesplitters. Doors at 7 PM, show at 8. $45–$65 advance at thewilma.com.