In the second season of Stephen King’s television series Under the Dome, Dwight Yoakam shows up as a mysterious barber who hums a few bars of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”
It’s sly casting, especially considering Yoakam just released a cover of that song as his new single. It’s also his first release on Reprise Records in more than a decade, hinting at a new project that is still under wraps.
Since the release of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1986, Yoakam has proven himself to be one of country’s most adventurous artists, smartly updating old sounds for a new era. His emphasis on classic country sounds and wiry Bakersfield guitars may have put him slightly out of step with the Nashville mainstream, but it didn’t stop him from selling more than 25 million records in 30 years.
Yoakam ranked No. 23 on CMT All-Time Top 40: Artists Choice, a list of the greatest-ever artists chosen by country stars themselves. While we wait to see what Yoakam is up to next, here are 10 essential songs from throughout his career.
“Guitars, Cadillacs” (Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., 1986)
When Yoakam signed with Reprise in the mid-1980s, the first thing the label did was expand and re-release his debut EP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. The title track plays like a musical mission statement with its solid rhythm section, gnarly guitar sound and lyrics that introduce the themes he would explore throughout his career: “Now it’s guitars, Cadillacs, hillbilly music/Lonely, lonely streets that I call home.”
“Honky Tonk Man” (Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., 1986)
One of Yoakam’s biggest hits, “Honky Tonk Man” quickly became his signature tune, so closely identified with him that many of his new fans didn’t realize it was a cover song. In fact, this humorous roadhouse number — about a guy who spends his time and money at the bar, then crawls back to his old lady when his money runs out — was a big hit for Johnny Horton in 1956, which just shows that this newcomer knew his country history.
“Little Sister” (Hillbilly Deluxe, 1987)
Yoakam was a deft songwriter in his own right, but he was also a savvy interpreter of others’ songs. His first single from his second album was a cover of a minor Elvis Presley hit, a raunchy little rocker about dating your ex’s younger sibling. “Little sister, don’t you do what your big sister done,” he sings as his guitar begs and pleads with her.
“I Sang Dixie” (Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room, 1988)
“I Sang Dixie” may be the heaviest song Yoakam ever sang, a mid-tempo number about watching your heroes die. It’s a risky tune, especially considering that he actually sings the song “Dixie,” but he avoids schmaltz by turning the tune into a screed against Los Angeles: “Old times there ain’t near as rotten.” The dark underbelly of the honky-tonk life he sang about on previous albums can rob you of your health, your life and even your identity.
“Streets of Bakersfield” (Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room, 1988)
It was only a matter of time. Three No. 1 albums into his career, Yoakam landed a duet with his hero Buck Owens, who first recorded Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield” back in 1972. The dynamic duo replaced the original’s two-step shuffle with a zydeco backbeat complete with accordion and electric mandolin, but the country legend and the young superstar weren’t exactly convincing as down-on-their-luck drifters. Everybody knew them, and it seemed like everybody liked them.
“Suspicious Minds” (Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack, 1992)
Another Elvis cover, this one from the soundtrack to the Nicolas Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker film. Yoakam’s version is pretty faithful to the original, maintaining the same tempo, the same mood and even those high-flying female vocals in the background. But he does pare the pop pomp of the original down to an essential guitar lick, and he gets bonus points for an insane video starring comedian-actor Cheech Marin — in bicycle shorts.
“Ain’t That Lonely Yet” (This Time, 1993)
His fifth album is arguably his best and certainly his best-selling. This Time softens some of the honky-tonk sounds of his earlier records, but that only gives him an opportunity to show his range on a soft-focus ballad like “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” It’s the only track on the album he didn’t write or co-write, and it’s a strange set of lyrics that compares his ex to a spider in his bed: “I got caught up in her web of love and lies,” Yoakam laments, although the song promises he’ll eventually be lonely enough to get tangled up again.
“A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” (This Time, 1993)
As fine an actor as he is a singer, Yoakam made his film debut playing a truck driver in John Dahl’s 1994 neo-noir film, Red Rock West, starring Cage (again!) and Dennis Hopper. “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” plays over the end credits, a lonesome ballad that portrays heartbreak as a metaphysical crisis: “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere, time don’t matter to me.” Trivia: The video features a cameo by Kelly Willis, then still on a major label.
“Things Change” (A Long Way Home, 1998)
A late-career hit defined by its big, Byrds-style guitar riff, “Things Change” is another song about heartbreak and recrimination, but with a twist. Love has faded and soured, but there’s no reason and no one to blame. Things just change, and “forever’s a promise we couldn’t survive.” It’s a bleak single, but it shows a new maturity in Yoakam’s songwriting.
“A Heart Like Mine” (3 Pears, 2012)
It’s an odd match, but it works. Yoakam teamed up with Beck (yes, that Beck) for his most recent album. The results are intriguing, less a return to his old honky-tonk roots than a wry twist on those sounds. “A Heart Like Mine” may be his most invigorating single of the new millennium.