Dwight Yoakam is undoubtedly one of the ‘forerunners’ of New Country. His mix of traditional Country, honky-tonk and rock & roll was delivered in exhilarating style on his debut album ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc’ back in 1986. Combined with his now trademark nasal vocals and cool cowboy image, Yoakam helped to re-energise Nashville out of its’ eighties slump. Operating on the fringes of the close-knit Country music community, Yoakam recorded his albums in California rather than Nashville, the Kentucky-native was never afraid to stand out from the crowd. His commercial success reached a high with the release of 1993’s ‘This Time’ album, a record that sold over three million copies and saw the singer just miss out on three No.1 singles, as ‘Fast As You’, ‘Ain’t That Lonely Yet’ & ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’ all agonisingly peaked at No.2.
Critically he continued to gain widespread praise with subsequent releases, slowing album sales saw him depart longtime record label Warner Bros imprint Reprise Records. The excellent ‘Population Me’ & ‘Blame The Vain’ releases were via smaller labels, following which it appeared that Yoakam’s acting career with appearances dating back to the mid-nineties had ovetaken his musical endeavours. There was a seven year gap before a long-overdue return (with Warner Bros) with ‘3 Pears’. Despite not setting sales records alight, the album set a record for weeks atop the Americana charts. There were some concerns that upon his return the former Country trendsetter had lost some of his unique spark. This week sees the release of ‘Second Hand Heart’, an album which proves without question that the now 58-year old cowboy remains one of the genres most exciting artists.
‘In Another World’ sets the pulse racing immediately with its’ jangly guitar chords and mesmerising riff. Energetic percussion and strong harmony backing perfectly compliment Yoakam’s swaggering vocal delivery on a track with surprisingly sweet lyrics, promising light at the end of the tunnel for the broken-hearted. Never afraid to blur the lines between Country and other genres, the singer dabbles with the sounds of 60’s-Pop on the effortlessly cool ‘She’. The mid-tempo track features a wonderful electric guitar bed and an almost playful Yoakam performance, he sounds like he’s having a ball and that translates to the listener.
‘Dreams of Clay’ sees Yoakam take his foot off the pedal for one of his best songs in quite some time. A gorgeous ballad recalling the ‘cravings of a fool‘ destined never to be with the woman he loves, it has everything. Achingly effective steel guitar, tender honky-tonk piano and the singer allowing a vulnerable crack to show through his well-crafted aloof persona. Title track ‘Second Hand Heart’ is musical nirvana for Dwight Yoakam fans, that pinched-nasal delivery powerfully singing over an electrifying slice of Country-rock. In his 90’s pomp this kind of cut is exactly why the singer was one of the most vital of his contemporaries, successfully rolling back the years ‘Second Hand Heart’ sounds utterly fabulous in 2015.
A longtime lover of the Bakersfield sound, it comes as no surprise to hear Yoakam deliver a killer shuffle with ‘Off Your Mind’. Shades of musical hero Buck Owens can be heard in a strutting vocal workout, as the bass clip-clops beneath, later supported by genial organ fills. The peppy nature of the melody belies the melancholy of the lyrics, making for a fascinating listen. In contrast to the musical simplicity of the track preceding it, the slow-paced ‘Believe’ is a heavily-layered, easy-Rock flavoured effort. Far from a bad song, it passes by without much to note as Yoakam’s vocals (& personality) are slightly buried beneath the over-production. The sole stumble on the album.
‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is a song with a long history, originally a folk tune dating back to the early 1900’s, it filtered into the mainstream of conciousness via the Coen Brothers movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ in 2000. That version was given a bluegrass re-working, get set here for the Dwight Yoakam hillbilly-rock version. Glorious electric guitar solos, breathless percussion and Yoakam at his twangy best completely transform the song as the singer completely ‘Yoakamises’ it (yes, I will be trademarking that word!). An electric guitar intro straight out of the Rolling Stones songbook followed by Dwight advising the studio engineer ‘better record this anyway…just for kicks‘, epitomise the loose & live feeling to the pounding ‘Liar’. Angry lyrics directed towards a woman who’s done him wrong are delivered with the requisite potency on a rousing track, a special mention for the sensational harmonica solos.
The sizzling ‘Big Time’ has more than a nod to Elvis, complete with Yoakam’s mumbled spoken intro. Cutting loose, the singer powers his way through the 3-minute fusion of Country and rock & roll like no other artist can. Sounding vocally as free as he ever has, the track may feature those big guitars but there is no doubt the singer himself is driving this tune home. The album closes strongly with the gentle, thoughtful ‘V’s Of Birds’, one of the most traditional sounding cuts on the album. A charming melody finds the singer looking to the skies, contemplating life’s mysteries, accompanied by spritely mandolin fills and flowing piano.
Almost thirty years on from his debut album, Dwight Yoakam has successfully recorded one of his strongest outings to date. The boldness and mischief that were lacking on previous album ‘3 Pears’ are welcomed back across ten cuts on which the singer sounds like he has fully reconnected with his love for music. Co-produced by Yoakam, who also wrote eight of the songs, ‘Second Hand Heart’ proves that this Country music veteran is still one of the most exciting and unique artists recording within our genre. Longtime Dwight Yoakam fans such as myself will revel in his thrilling return to form, the uninitiated would do well to take the time to listen to this superb album…and then have the pleasure of delving back into a remarkable back-catalogue. (Second Hand Heart is released in the UK on 13th April, and in the US on 14th April)