Because Dwight is just so damn cool, and because it’s been quite a while since his heyday, it’s easy to forget that at one point he was one of the biggest things going in mainstream country music; selling out arenas, and shaking up the sound with his neotraditional, Bakersfield-fueled tunes. Yoakam has sold over 25 million records and charted 30 singles, but you don’t think of him as a mainstream success, he’s the man you shake your fist at, but love all the same because he will always be cooler than you.
7 years is a long time to be absent from an original release, though Yoakam has plenty of excuses and been plenty busy with numerous movie appearances. He says the long lapse was not planned, but after coming off the joyride that was the mid 80’s through the early 2000’s for Dwight, crowds and sales were beginning to dwindle. Where he once played arenas, he was now headlining county fairs and releasing albums on smaller labels like Koch and New West.
Now he’s back on Warner where his career started in earnest after coming up playing mostly in rock and punk circles and being branded too “out there” by Nashville. You probably won’t see Yoakam’s name on your local arena’s marquee (he plays a lot of concert-catering casinos these days), but it feels like the Yoakam hiatus allowed his career to baste and simmer until now he’s re-emerged as a younger, but bona fide country music legend; a much more appetizing alternative to grasping to hold on to your youth and mainstream relevancy (see Hank Jr.). 3 Pears debuted at #3 on Billboard’s country chart, and was helped along by a top-notch media push by a big label.
It would have been impossible to screw up 3 Pears. With Dwight’s molasses voice, all you have to do is cut open a live mic in a studio and magic will happen. What’s the old saying about singing the phone book? When Johnny Cash has cited you as his favorite country singer, you know the talent is natural. All it needs is an outlet.
After giving 3 Pears an extended listen, I was curious of why even though I liked all of the songs, only a few of them seemed to grow on me to the point of where I craved them. I think this is a product of the production. Though none of the approaches to the songs are necessarily wrong, some feel like they are stretching, like they are trying to make sure the songs sound hip and fresh instead of letting them breathe and find their own path.
For example, the very first song, “Take Hold of My Hand” starts off with a very hip bass line. This is a song that Yoakam had been sitting on for 20 years and reached out to Kid Rock to help finish. No offense to bass guitar (or Kid Rock), but when I hear a Yoakam song, I don’t want to notice the bass. I want to be grabbed by the collar by Yoakam’s voice and have everything else compliment it. Similar bass action starts of the song “Trying”, an otherwise excellent song and one of the best on the album. But despite whatever production miscues, the strength of the material rallies.
Beck also helped out on 3 Pears, collaborating and recording two songs at his Malibu studio, “Missing Heart”, and in my opinion the gem of the project, “A Heart Like Mine”. This song is where everything comes together. Where some of the tracks on 3 Pears come across as a little too polished, here the guitar is dirty, the words a hard to make out, and that’s the way I want my Dwight. If I can’t understand the words because Yoakam’s voice is in that sweet spot for his drawl and inflections, that’s perfect, because that means I can feel them.
One of the hardest things for an excellent singer to do is to write to their vocal strengths. That’s one of the reasons Dwight has released 4 cover albums, and why some of his biggest hits were version of recognizable songs, (ex: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Streets of Bakersfield”). Yoakam finds that magical combination of originality and his singing sweet spot a few times on 3 Pears. He also let’s fly a great cover of the oft-covered “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” that has its roots in the original Bakersfield Sound that Dwight helps carry on and that is being showcased right now (and that song specifically) at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
Dwight Yoakam is an important figure in the quest to save country music. He’s authentic, real, and original. Yet he’s also successful, accepted, proven, palatable to the mainstream, and perfect for outreach with his acting career. He’s country’s king of cool (despite what he looks like without a hat), and 3 Pears is a solid contribution that will hopefully re-ignite interest in this iconic, one-of-a-kind country music talent that generations deserve to hear.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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