Just the idea of Dwight Yoakam making a bluegrass album is like some sort of gift from the country music Gods. Before a lick of music was heard, the news of Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars was its own viral event.
But this album was never going to live up to whatever expectations fans assigned to it. That’s in no way a knock against the album, the songs, the music, the players, or Dwight. It’s just that the words “Dwight Yoakam is releasing a bluegrass album” is such an accelerant for setting the hair of traditional country, bluegrass, and Dwight Yoakam fans on fire, the result could never be as good as the idea sounded. The news that the album would be covers of previously-released Dwight Yoakam material helped to temper expectations a little bit, though for others it exacerbated their zeal, while the idea of Dwight covering Prince’s “Purple Rain” bluegrass style raised the buzz factor behind this record even further.
The primary issue with this album is that none of these songs were written to be bluegrass songs. Dwight Yoakam has written some songs throughout his career that veer towards bluegrass already, songs like “Miner’s Prayer” from his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc., but he mostly avoided this type of material that could be more intuitively interpreted into traditional bluegrass. At the same time, Dwight made sure to avoid making this his greatest hits done bluegrass style. He put effort out to use songs that could work as bluegrass compositions, and wasn’t afraid to include album cuts. Nonetheless, the cadence of the lyrics, and the structure of the songs feel like trying to force a country song into a bluegrass mold at times. Some of these tracks just don’t have the flow that many great bluegrass songs have, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the words.
But Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is a good, solid, fun bluegrass record that may be more novelty than substance, but still is something all Dwight fans should at least give strong consideration, and is a neat side project to compliment his legendary catalog.
Throughout Dwight’s career, he’s always taken time to pay homage. In 1997, his Under the Covers album was a collection of songs from country and beyond that influenced his career. Two other compilations of Dwight singing cover songs on tributes and other projects came out in 2003 and 2004. Then of course there’s the legendary Dwight Sings Buck from 2007.
Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is Dwight Yoakam’s way of paying tribute not to songs or artists, but an art form that has influenced his career, and is strong in his roots as a native of Pikeville, Kentucky. The title is sort of a tongue-in-cheek take on how Dwight is more often associated with Hollywood, but is still very much a hillbilly at heart.
The issue is that Dwight’s slow songs of heartbreak don’t easily slide into the more up-tempo and traditionally-minded bluegrass mold. Not that bluegrass can’t or doesn’t have an element of the blues in there too, but Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is full of plodding, honky tonk numbers, while the theme of bluegrass over the years has been more about nostalgia and other more diverse subjects set to a more upbeat tempo.
When the songs have a bit more juice behind the rhythm, and a more natural staccato pentameter, that is when the concept behind Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars shines through, and the stellar musicians assembled like Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and banjo player Scott Vestal can do their worst. Though they come late in the track list, “Please Please Baby” and especially “Gone (That’ll Be Me)” are arguably the best selections from the album, even though a song like “Guitars Cadillacs” may be an overall better song compositionally, and still a hoot to hear done bluegrass style.
If you come to this record expecting some groundbreaking bluegrass project, especially if you weren’t in the loop that this is a covers record, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But if you look at it as Dwight trying to keep things spicy and interesting, and releasing a side project of cool bluegrass versions of some of his previously-released material, you’ll have a good time, enjoy the listen, see a different side of Dwight, and satiate your desire to hear what he’d be like in the bluegrass realm.
Maybe in the future there is an original bluegrass album from Dwight in store.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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