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Dwight Yoakam

Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years – 2002 (Reprise/Rhino)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Dwight Yoakam

Having resurrected the commercial fortunes of honky-tonk styled Bakersfield country music in the mid-'80s, Dwight Yoakam created an uncompromising string of albums that pushed boundaries without ever losing sight of his twangy roots. This 4-CD set is a fitting recitation of Yoakam's 16-year recording career, stretching from his initial demos (available here for the first time) to a trio of newly recorded tunes. The track list makes generous stops at Yoakam's studio albums, as well as guest appearances, tribute contributions and soundtracks. The first 3 discs intersperse the extra-curricular works among tracks from Yoakam's 9 regular albums; the fourth disc begins with the 10 original demos, before collecting numerous other unreleased odds and ends.

Yoakam entered the record world fully formed with 1986's "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc." Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man" and Yoakam's title tune showcase both a masterful interpreter and top-notch songwriter. The sharp twang of Pete Anderson's guitar playing proves nearly as important a voice as Yoakam's own, and their joint refutation of Nashville's crossover sound twangs loudly in the mix of guitars, drums, fiddle, piano, Dobro and steel. 1987's "Hillbilly Deluxe" followed a similar template, recorded quickly (17 days) and broadening the acknowledgments with a cover of Elvis' "Little Sister." Anderson's production began to tinker with the format, adding some modern guitar sounds, as well as countrypolitan backing vocals on Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses."

1988's "Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room" turned up the drama, with "I Sang Dixie" and the title tune deepening the detail of Yoakam's story telling, and a duet with Buck Owens, accompanied by the accordion filigree of Flaco Jimenez, finding the perfect note of pathos. A slow-burning cover of Dave Alvin's "Long White Cadillac" pays simultaneous tribute to Hank Williams and Yoakam's Los Angeles compatriots, The Blasters. 1990's "If There Was a Way" finds Anderson's production landscape expanding, with bowed-strings augmenting the pickers, and Allman Brothers styled rock raising its head on "Dangerous Man." In many ways, these two-steppers and honky-tonk weepers consolidate the previous few years, clearing the decks for even broader experimentation.

Yoakam's 1992 cover of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita," recorded for Jimenez' "Partners" LP, sounded a deep note of urban grit, and beat-heavy covers of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" and the Syndicate of Sound's garage-rock classic, "Hey Little Girl" showed more of Yoakam's rock 'n' roll affinities. The same year, "This Time" really began the melding of various pop sounds into a sophisticated brew. The balladry of "Ain't That Lonely Yet," countrypolitan backing vocals of "Pocket of a Clown" and growling organ of "Fast as You" all fit magically together. 1995's "Gone" pushed the hybrid form even further, with reverb guitars, string sections, mariachi horns and hand-claps backing Yoakam's swaggering vocals.

1997's "Covers" was a detour with only a few worthwhile stops (several of which are surprisingly not included here). Chief among the highlights was Yoakam's brilliant recasting of The Clash's "Train in Vain" as a banjo-driven hill-country tune. Ironically, though the album of covers would seem to be near-and-dear to Yoakam's heart, it was the follow-up, "A Long Way Home," that found his energy renewed. Anderson's blend of sounds completely jelled on this 1998 release, with all manner of guitars, from hollow-body acoustics to sharp-twanging steel and Dobro to fuzzed electrics blending into a cohesive whole. Even Yoakam's voice sounded bigger as he careened through "Same Fool" and took stock in "Things Change."

Covers of Queen ("Crazy Little Thing Called Love") and Bob Wills ("New San Antonio Rose," recorded with Asleep at the Wheel) turned out to be a prelude to Yoakam's back-to-his-own-roots releases of 2000. The pseudo-bootleg, "dwightyoakamacoustic.net," focused on Yoakam's songs by stripping away Anderson's trademark production, while the ironically titled "Tomorrow's Sounds Today" returned to the sound of Yoakam's first pair of albums. Disc three closes with a pair of tracks from Yoakam's film "South of Heaven, West of Hell," as well as a tribute to ZZ Top ("I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide"), and three new tracks, including a late-night reading of "Mercury Blues."

Closing out this set is an entire disc of previously unreleased tracks. The original 10 demo tracks find Yoakam's songs and voice surprisingly advanced, but both are often buried under a loud mix of drums, guitars, steel and fiddle. A pair of duets with Kelly Willis ("Golden Rings" and "Take Me") are fine, but neither provides the heart-stopping moment one might expect. Gram Parsons' "Sin City" proves a wonderful, overwrought solo turn for Yoakam and his acoustic guitar. The closing eight live recordings provide a glimpse of Yoakam's eclectic tastes, ranging from The Grateful Dead's "Truckin'" to particularly fine takes of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" and Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again."

This jam-packed box (nearly five hours total length!) shows Dwight Yoakam to be the rare artist who maintains his artistic consistency without stagnating. The four discs explore every direction of Yoakam's catalog, including prime tracks from original studio albums, bonus tracks from greatest hits releases, joint work with others artists and contributions to tribute releases. There are original songs and covers (both country and pop), as well as songs from commercials and films. The track list covers everything from Yoakam's first recorded demos to his latest studio efforts. One could pick nits at what's missing (tracks from Yoakam's 1995 live LP and his 1997 Christmas release, Internet-only releases, bonus tracks that turned up on import albums, soundtracks and B-sides, as well as nearly three-dozen additional guest spots he made on others' albums), but that would be missing the point. This is a finely picked overview befitting the career of an artist of Yoakam's talent and importance.