With the massive splash that Storms of Life created, it would be all too easy to forget that there was another, earlier country album that helped finally put the blight of Urban Cowboy to rest. Ironically, if people hadn’t been so overexposed to the glitzy pap that was Urban Cowboy, Dwight Yoakam might have remained a cult figure in country music. Although his sound was pure and unabashedly country, early on he occupied a space in the peripherals of the genre, just as likely to do a set with Husker Du or X as he was to play with spiritual forefather Buck Owens. His uncompromising, hard-rocking, hard-living sound gave his appeal a versatility that belied the fact that he was the most stereotypically “country” sounding artist to break into the mainstream in the 80s, and his relentlessly independent image appealed to both the more cowpunk spectrum of the LA punk scene and to the many holdovers from the outlaw country movement that were hoping for anyone to break the hold that gutless crossover appeal had on Nashville. Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. is Yoakam roaring out of the starting gate, a fiery affirmation that country music still had an edge, could still be a wild good time and still show up, hungover and battered, for church on Sunday.
Much like Randy Travis, Yoakam’s music hearkens back to the past glories of the genre. Where Yoakam differs is that his sound, the electric guitar driven shuffle born in Bakersfield, California, is faithful to its roots to an almost anti-commercial degree. Where Travis looked to the heartfelt hominess of the classics as his inspiration, Yoakam draws from the wild-edged, boozy sawdust floors of Bakersfield dives and biker bars, the hoot-and-holler aspect of country music that carried with it an almost dangerous edge. A listen to the title track makes clear why he was so popular with the cowpunks, the raw, almost live-sounding production giving a rakish swagger to an absolute barn burner of an anthem. It’s uncompromisingly “honky-tonk hillbilly” (as Dwight himself would describe it), his Elvis-inflected twang cutting through the neon and cigarette smoke atmosphere like an air raid siren. What Dwight seems to have recognized in his devotion to Bakersfield mainstays Buck Owens and Merle Haggard is that trend jumping, no matter how many records it sold, was no way for a genre to evolve and still maintain artistic integrity.
Yoakam’s devotion to the hard hitting electric sounds of Bakersfield and his hard living forebears played out in more than just musical stylings. It’s a bold move to try to do justice to a classic like June Carter’s Ring of Fire on the first go, and Dwight knocks it out of the park like it was a second thought. Same story with both the opening and closing numbers, reworkings of 50s classics that Dwight brings into the modern limelight in a manner that’s fiercely faithful to the soul of the originals while adding the kind of timeless fire that will never let a song seem outdated. Heartaches By The Number especially benefits, not just because it’s the stronger song of the two, but also because that galloping rhythm, almost tripping over itself throughout, fits Dwight’s twang so goddamn
well. His original songs are strong enough to stand along the covers, especially the immortal title track as well as the heartfelt ode to working class migration that is South of Cincinnati, a ballad drawn from Dwight’s own childhood experience as a transplant from Kentucky to Ohio. Bury Me is an especially strong number as well, a rocking duet with Lone Justice’s Maria Mckee that shows some of guitarist/producer Pete Anderson’s strongest work on the album.
There would be minor improvements on Yoakam’s sound over his career: the production would markedly improve as time went on (the fiddle and drum sounds would especially come into their own on subsequent releases), his voice would become ever so slightly more assured, and his songwriting skills would begin to match and, occasionally, eclipse even the classics he more than did justice to. But Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. is the finest collection of songs Dwight would bring together, due in no small part both to a faithful regard for everything that made the classics great, and both the will and talent to surpass the vision of their originators. While This Time would ultimately prove to be Dwight’s most personal and complete musical statement, nothing can beat his debut for the sheer joy of a sound that refuses to compromise or bow to prevailing musical trends in any way, shape or form. Love it or hate it, this album is