Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars …
Sugar Hill Records
Among the kinds of artist Dwight Yoakam has never been: cowpunk, country-rock, hat act, neo-traditionalist, revivalist, purist, poseur, Americana.
Here is the kind of music Dwight Yoakam plays: Hillbilly Deluxe (as he titled his second album). He’s a honky-tonk man, as he insisted on his breakthrough single, a declaration borrowed from the late, great Johnny Horton.
Now Dwight’s music, whatever you want to call it, has come full circle. He has just released the bluegrassy Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars …, three decades after he debuted with Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. That album launched a career unlike any other in country music. This new album revisits some of Dwight’s old songs, including a couple of hits and more of what some call “deep cuts,” along with one ringer, transformed and arranged for banjo, mandolin and the traditional instrumentation of Appalachia.
And, no, Dwight has not become a bluegrass artist, nor does this sound like any other bluegrass album. But one of the reasons it works so well is because it shares the same regional strains that have coursed through Yoakam’s musical bloodstream from the start. This is the hillbilly music that he once electrified, when he conquered the Palomino and the punk circuit of L.A. alike, sounding like a time-warped radical in both contexts.
Yoakam launched the album last week at AmericanaFest in Nashville, which he employed as an extended marketing opportunity for an album that has no chance of returning him to commercial country radio. Yet, as he explained, this is also the first time in his career that he has released an album recorded in the belly of the beast, the self-proclaimed Music City U.S.A., the home base for commercial country. So here we have Yoakam’s first album ever recorded in Nashville, and one that country radio will never play. And he launches it during the big gathering of the Americana Music Association, a format and community the artist has all but ignored (even as it honored him in absentia a couple of years back). And all of this is true to form, for Yoakam is nothing if not an artist of contradiction and paradox, an artist who should not be understood too easily or categorized too simply. Even the title, which old folks will remember from The Beverly Hillbillies, suggests that the album owes as much to the promised land of California as it does to his roots in Kentucky. In this way it also provides a bookend with that debut, and the ironic self-consciousness of the “hillbilly” tag, an insult that the artist has worn with pride.
For this project, he enlisted the stellar services of Alison Krauss producer Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall (veteran songwriter, artist and mandolinist), who recruited the musicians (many from Krauss’s Union Station and the O Brother sessions) and picked the songs. He explained in Nashville that he was surprised when the songs they picked were his, that he had expected to sing an album of covers. But Yoakam was plainly intrigued by the idea, as an artist who has his own strong vision but who has also benefitted from strong collaboration in the studio (as the commercial success he long enjoyed with producer/bandleader/guitarist Pete Anderson attests).
The result is a neat division of creative labor, with Yoakam’s co-producers and musicians responsible for the instrumental arrangements, while the material and vocal arrangements are Dwight’s. As he explained in Nashville, once they’d completed the sessions with his scratch vocals there, he took the tracks back home to Los Angeles, where he layered the choral harmonies that further distinguishes this work.
Just listen to “Listen,” the album’s centerpiece, which was something of an afterthought on 1998’s A Long Way Home, an album that itself is something of an afterthought along the arc of Yoakam’s career. Yet, dusted off and refreshed here, it establishes itself as not only the album’s highlight, but in the first rank of Yoakam’s songs. Its sunny, shimmering California harmonies over the bluegrass backing — like the Beach Boys on a hayride — make for a transcendent listening experience. “Listen … through the stillness inside.”
It’s worth noting that three of the album’s 11 Yoakam compositions come from A Long Way Home, a strong effort that failed to command the listenership he had enjoyed at his commercial peak a few years previously. Other tracks will also be unfamiliar to the casual Dwight or country fan, and the recasting of the material shows just how strong these songs are, and how fresh they sound often decades after they were written.
As they say in Texas, this isn’t Dwight’s first rodeo, as far as either radical bluegrass transformations or recasting of songs is concerned. He previously coaxed Dr. Ralph Stanley into a transformative bluegrass reading of the Clash’s “Train in Vain,” and he extended his own string of country hits with unlikely neo-rockabilly renditions of Cheap Trick (“I Want You to Want Me”) and Queen (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”).
This album concludes with a different kind if revelation — a banjo-driven, stripped-down interpretation of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” recorded after the shock of his death, not initially intended for this project. The immediacy of the spare arrangement and the scratch vocal, which capture the moment better than polished perfection could, suggest not only the musicians’ appreciation for Prince, but Dwight’s appreciation for popular music in all of its manifest forms. He not only has good ears, he has big ears, an omnivorous knowledge of and appreciation for songcraft and the myriad ways it can be transformed.
You can hear such transformations throughout Swimmin’ Pools, in the way that “These Arms,” another sleeper from A Long Way Home and a roadhouse shuffle originally, builds into a banjo-driven, hand-clapping, clog-dancing barn burner. Or the bass vocal (by Jonathan Clarke) that conjures a gospel quartet on “Home For Sale.” Or the playfulness of the guitar-mandolin call-and-response rendition of the familiar “Please Please Baby” that forges toward new sonic territory.
Yes, the songs deserve the reappraisal and so does the artist who originally recorded them and now revisits them. People often have one idea of who or what Dwight Yoakam is. And that one idea is always wrong, because there is no single tag that fits the protean artist’s music. As another writer steeped in the American grain once put it, he contains multitudes. — DON MCLEESE
(A former Austin American-Statesman music critic in the ‘90s, Don McLeese is the author Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere (University of Texas Press, 2012), the first, the best and still the only biography of Dwight Yoakam.)