Country Ain’t Easy

In Hong Kong that is.

Dwight Yoakam’s got a new CD out, Three Pears. It’s his first original album in seven years, a welcome surprise from a guy who’s done more acting than singing lately.

Is it a New Order cover? Jazz fusion? Hell, no.

So I was in HMV Central the other day, to pick up the new One Direction for EO and some other boy band birthday gifties for one of YO’s friends. And I thought: I could really use some Dwight today – what are my chances of finding his latest?

Not great, let me tell you. The popularity of country music in Hong Kong started with Johnny Cash, peaked at Glen Campbell and ended somewhere around “Rocky Mountain High”. George Strait? Never heard of the guy. Miranda Lambert? Not interested. Taylor Swift might sell squillions worldwide – and a stack of her latest was greeting everyone who walked through HMV’s doors – but she’s firmly in the pop camp these days.

I knew it would take some effort, but if you’ve ever seen Dwight live or heard that warble in his voice, you’d know he’s worth it. First, I had to ask the clerk, Joe, where the country section was. He showed me maybe three shelves to the left of jazz, mixed in with easy listening and folk. Carrie Underwood was there, filed between The Brothers Four and Connie Francis. Okay, random. Lady Antebellum was there, and I couldn’t help but notice that they filled a section of shelf about equal to John Denver’s allotment.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a (country) woman.

But Joe the clerk was my champion. I spelled out Dwight’s name and Joe checked their computers and then disappeared. After many frustrating minutes – are you telling me there is only one Dixie Chicks CD for sale and it’s a cheesy, quick-compiled Greatest Hits album? – Joe returned with the goods. I almost hugged him.

The album cover was simple: three pears against a stark white background. No hats, boots or truck bumpers in sight. It’s definitely not your typical country album cover, but Dwight has never followed Nashville’s playbook. He made his name as a student of the Buck Owens-Bakersfield sound: old school and proud of it. He’s had an eclectic acting career, happily playing comedy weirdos or brutal villains. For Three Pears, he got Beck to come in and produce a couple of tracks. Put all that together and I’m looking forward to some boundary pushing, thinking this might be his Van Lear Rose.

Unfortunately, the production on the new album is slicker, fuller, and disappointing in its middle-of-the-road sound. I couldn’t tell what he was going for: a kind of ‘60s pop feel or a big ‘70s Eaglesque rock sound. “It’s Never Alright” could be an amped-up “Desperado” (with horns!) while the Beck-produced “A Heart Like Mine”, I swear, would not have been out of place in an episode of The Monkees.

The twang is still there – just not as rough and ready as in his younger years – and I did find some moments to enjoy. The pedal steel and the ache in “Missing Heart” – the other Beck number – remind me of some of Dwight’s best bittersweet songs, and the lone cover tune, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (by Joe Maphis), is a great honky tonk number.

What I miss is the intimacy of his early work. The songs on Three Pears are too big, too loud, too stadium. I’m not asking for another Hillbilly Deluxe but where are the fiddles, at least? Where’s the man who seems most at home in a beer-soaked, sawdust-floor dance hall? I searched and searched for him. Now I miss him.

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Posted on November 23, 2012, in music, new music, pop culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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