Like a lot of people my age born north of the Mason-Dixon line, I didn’t listen to much country music when I was growing up. And when I did, it was usually against my will. Most of my country music education when I was kid came from Hee Haw, which my dad watched on most Saturday evenings. I suppose I could have left the room, but the kitschy humor was okay and the girls were pretty hot, so I sat there and took it in. I couldn’t relate to the music, though. At all.
My youthful musical biases started to give way in my young adulthood and my tastes expanded. I’m not sure who the first country artist was that I eventually embraced, but, strangely enough, I think it was Buck Owens—the Hee Haw guy I used to make fun of because of his funny haircut and goofy laugh. When I started listening to his music, especially the stuff he recorded in his heyday with the Bucakroos in the ’60s, I found out how great he was.
That led me to Dwight Yoakam, which made perfect sense since Yoakam was a Buck disciple and champion of the Bakersfield sound that Buck created. In the late ’80s I was going to see bands like Black Flag, Die Kreuzen, and Soul Asylum, so Yoakam’s twangy guitar, nasaly voice, turned down cowboy hat, frilly jackets, and boots were a big shift in many ways. But he was a rebel, which appealed to the punk rocker in me. Yoakam’s honky tonk flew in the face of the Nashville establishment, which was in urban cowboy mode when he was starting out. Throughout his career, Yoakam has made the music he’s wanted to make without bowing to the whims of the industry or mainstream audiences, which is a trait I have always admired in any musician.
What Yoakam and Buck taught me was there was more to country music than meets the eye—or ears. Just like rock-n-roll or other genres, the music goes deeper than what is currently on the radio at the time. As I started to dig in, I discovered all kinds of “fringe” country like Steve Earle and “alt country” progenitors like Jason and the Scorchers. Deeper still were huge, older country stars I had never before considered: Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Bob Wills, etc., etc. It’s a country road I still happily travel today, and Dwight is a big reason why.
We had fourth row seats in the center for Yoakam’s show at Hoyt Sherman Place last Thursday. Hoyt Sherman is one of my favorite venues in Des Moines. The intimate seating and Victorian architecture help make it a unique live music experience. But Yoakam’s music is more suited for a big bar or a place with lots of room to dance, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Plus, with the intimacy comes limited leg room, and that was never more apparent than on Thursday.
There was a really large man sitting right in front of Jennifer and once the music stated, he started rocking back and forth and sideways in his seat. Hard. This was no problem; who could blame him? DY started the set with Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music), so I wasn’t sitting still, either. But Big Man probably weighed twice as much as me, and as he rocked on, and I got concerned that his chair was going to explode and he would end up in Jennifer’s lap. This place opened in the 1920s and the thin, little chairs look like they’ve been there the whole time, so I wasn’t confident that his would hold up under the immense strain. We hoped for the best.
Yoakam and his youthful but excellent band barely paused as they kept the hits coming. Big Man was enjoying the show. As he continued rocking, he added big hand movements and gestures in rhythm to the music toward the stage—kind of a country and western vogue thing. He took it to the next level when he finally got out of his chair, went down to the stage and started dancing. Well, it was more of an odd grooving in place than dancing, really, but he kept calling it dancing every time an usher asked him to sit down. He’d come back to his seat, dejected, and yell into his date’s ear, “They won’t let me dance!” along with “What’s wrong with this country!”
But he kept going back out there. Normally I believe in the idiom dance like no one is watching, but this guy made me change my opinion. Now I believe in – dance like no one is watching, unless everyone is watching and absolutely no one is into it. The band members were starting to take notice and were enjoying Big Man’s moves. At one point, Yoakam looked at him, smiled, and said into the mic, “I told you to wait in the car!” Another larger, more convincing usher escorted him back to his seat—again.
While Big Man was an interesting sideshow, it didn’t distract from the band. Many of Yoakam’s songs have unique arrangements with some sounds and riffs that are not from the country mold, but these guys pulled them all off. They played most everything from his extensive catalog that you would expect to hear. I would have liked to have heard Long, White Cadillac; but oh, well. It was a two-hour honky tonk freight train—sans honky tonk—delivered by one of the masters.
And Big Man turned out to be a trailblazer. Many in the crowd eventually flooded down in front of the stage during the first encore. I felt bad. Had a few of us gone with him during his first foray to the stage, the ushers may have let it happen, he would have blended in somewhat, and not gotten repeatedly sent back to his seat. Next time, Big Man, I got your back.