The title of Dwight’s Yoakam’s 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today is one of the greatest musical in-jokes of all time. Yoakam has made a 20-plus year career out of brushing the cobwebs from yesterday’s sounds—in particular, rockabilly and the classic, loping mid-’60s Bakersfield swagger of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—and transforming them into something fresh and relevant. So one suspects that beneath the cowboy hat perpetually covering his face, Yoakam had tongue firmly in cheek.
Between filming the final takes of his latest movie, Bandidas, Yoakam found the time to record a new album. Blame the Vain, Dwight’s 18th full-length, is somewhat of a departure for the veteran singer/songwriter. It’s his first stab at production, and his first recorded output with a new band that features players as varied as guitar slinger Keith Gattis (ex-George Jones) and seminal Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall.
“I think it’s incumbent on any songwriter to find new inspiration throughout his or her life,” says Yoakam. “And in the last couple of years I’ve been rethinking just how to go about this process. This time I wanted to go for a more stripped down, austere sound, and I’d been playing with the Sin City All Stars in L.A., sitting in with this loose collective of folks who love to play country and country-rock music. It just seemed like the logical place to begin when I started recording the new album.”
Blame the Vain’s 12 songs are split equally between the rockabilly rave-ups and Bakersfield honky tonkers for which Yoakam is best known and the sad-sack ballads that have always characterized the best country music. As always, Dwight’s singing and songwriting is first-rate.
“The best songs tend to write themselves,” says Yoakam. “I just try to be still long enough so I don’t interfere with the process. The songs on this album just led me along for the ride. On ‘Intentional Heartache’ I started out with just the first two lines: ‘She drove south I-95 straight through Carolina / She didn’t use no damn map to find her way.’ I really had no idea where that song was taking me. But... Pretty soon there was a story there, a whole history there, that I could have never envisioned when I started.”
The process is nowhere better realized than on “I Wanna Love Again,” an update of the classic Bakersfield sound that is part cornball-romantic lament and part existential angst that could only come from the deepest recesses of the heart.
“It’s funny in a way,” says Yoakam. “You start off with a stereotypical love song, and eventually you realize that you’re writing about middle age, and a loss of joy in your life, and a desire to recapture that sense of reckless spontaneity and abandon. This whole album is like that. It took me places I didn’t expect to go. And I hope that sense of fun and pure joy in making music comes through. Almost everything else has changed, and yet it all comes back to the joy of making music.”
In the end, that’s the conundrum with which Blame the Vain confronts the longtime listener. Yoakam has managed to re-invent himself, find new wellsprings of creativity, and still sound like no one but himself.