Dwight Yoakam is undeniably one of the smartest, most ambitious and most enduring artists to come out of the neo-traditionalist era. During a a time when country music was at a crossroads, a cavalcade of artists stood at the ready to return the format to its earthy roots, while also pushing the envelope in exciting new directions. When Yoakam released his 1986 debut studio record Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., here was a man with a penchant for smoky honky-tonk styling, swagger for days and an unmistakable vocal tic. His sound was organic, bolstered by sweltering guitar licks and a cocky moodiness which proved to be exactly what the mainstream corner needed to revitalize its ranks.
Through the years, Yoakam has stuck to his guns, often reminding us of his magical way of delivering a song. His brand new record, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, is as country (maybe even more so) than he has ever sounded or dared to be, in the face of a hurricane of R&B swirl, electronic drum loops and pop euphoria. But that’s to be expected from the 10-gallon hat-wearing troubadour who not only rocked our world with Carter Family-style picking and Flatt & Scruggs sensibility, but he defined an entirely new generation of country music fans. His legacy is unmatched by anyone else, except maybe for Alan Jackson (another product of a time gone by).
10 Best Honky-Tonk Songs From Dwight Yoakam:
1. “Honky Tonk Man”
If we are speaking in terms of classic honky-tonk, nothing is better than this. A cut from his 1986 debut record Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., this track helped refocus attention of the mainstream back on the sounds and textures of yesteryear, channeling Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and even the Foggy Mountain Boys.
2. “Little Sister”
As a cover of Doc Pomus (and also recorded by Ry Cooder and Elvis Presley), this jangly, two-step ditty taps into Yoakam’s knack for harder biting music. It’s as honky-tonk as they come, with an air of rock flowing underneath. The song is lifted from his 1987 sophomore album Hillbilly Deluxe.
3. “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose”
Featuring a Hank Williams-like lonesome cry, this number suits Yoakam’s tearful portrayal of heartache. Not as such a scorching barn-burner or toe-tapping romper as other entries on this scorecard, this standout from 1990’s If There Was a Way allows the traditionalist to explore a more intimate side to his craft.
4. “Fast as You”
Lifted from 1993’s This Time, Yoakam declares that “maybe someday I’ll be strong, maybe it won’t be long” and he “can break hearts, too.” While he processes his heartache, he puts up a wall, at least pretending (for now) that he is as strong has his ex. The organ piano underneath alights on an otherwise straight up honky-tonk ditty, pinned together with jarring percussion and the inescapable quake of the electric guitar.
5. “It Only Hurts When I Cry”
Another standout from 1990’s If There Was a Way, Yoakam returns to mid-tempo form with a waltz-y ode stacked with steel guitar and fiddle, softly paying homage to the great Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
6. “What I Don’t Know”
A murderous tale of revenge, Yoakam reflects on his heartache on his cut from his third studio album, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. Even though he built (most of) his career on lonesomeness and pain, he does so with bravado and nuance. This downtempo number is peppered with sizzling fiddle playing and an unquenchable thirst to get justice.
7. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
Not just anyone can take on Queen. Slithering himself into the rockabilly classic, Yoakam transforms the song into one of the defining honky-tonk numbers of all time. Drenched in his undeniable yodel-like vocal and a grittier bounce, the song is as old as it is new. The song was included on his 1999 compilation Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam’s Greatest Hits from the 90’s.
8. “Little Ways”
Included on his 1987 Hillbilly Deluxe record, he addresses his ex full-throttle — “you’ve got your little ways of hurting me, you know just how to tear me up,” he sings — and pours his heart and soul directly into the music itself. The ache of the fiddle, the gentle sweep of the drums, the tender tinkle of the piano and the arrangement all bleed together into one powerful confessional.
9. “Long White Cadillac”
Just three years into his career, Yoakam took a spin at his first compilation album, the cheeky-titled Just Lookin’ for a Hit. The opener, a cover of Dave Alvin & the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac,” is a harder hitting rendering than the original, steeped in Yoakam’s incomparable musicality and fresh honky-tonk flavor.
10. “Streets of Bakersfield”
Originally a Buck Owens solo 1973 recording, the legend later enlisted Yoakam in 1988 for a duet rendition. Paying homage to the Bakersfield Sound — a movement which arose out of Bakersfield, California as opposition to the more polished Nashville music — Yoakam was given ample permission to take the song wherever it was destined to go. The result is a marvel to behold.