"She said, You once cried my name, I said, Well baby, things change."
Dwight Yoakam, considered by many to be country music's most elusive superstar, sang these prophetic words on his 1998 release, A Long Way Home. The album marked the beginning of a sharp decline in sales, as it -- and the three subsequent releases that followed -- failed to achieve the success of Yoakam's previous work, which included six platinum-plus albums and numerous hit singles. Recently, he ended his 16-year relationship with the Reprise label, and is now seeking a new home for future releases.
To understand how Yoakam lost his magic touch, one needs to look at 1) how the country music industry has changed in the past decade and 2) Yoakam's own behavior. In the late '80s and early '90s, the singer was honored with both commercial success and critical accolades. He was one of the few country artists whose appeal crossed over from the mainstream audience to the supposedly hipper alternative country crowd, and he was able to bridge the chasm between the two with music that was intelligent and catchy at the same time. Yoakam had it all: the classic country chops, the charisma and the credibility. His music was both steeped in tradition and tempered with a contemporary attitude. For more than 10 years, he seemed unstoppable.
But all the while, country music -- particularly the single-driven radio market -- was becoming more and more conservative, demanding artists that were increasingly predictable and presentable. As a result, mainstream country has become a watered-down, pop-driven, faux-sincerity-laden facsimile of what had once defined traditional country. And Yoakam's music is now "too country for country radio."
While this metamorphosis in the music industry was happening, Yoakam appeared to be more interested in acting than making music. Critically acclaimed roles in The Newton Boys and the popular Sling Blade gave him all the clout he needed to develop and direct a film of his own, the ill-fated South of Heaven, West of Hell. Meanwhile, between 1998 and 2000, his musical output consisted of a greatest hits package with a couple of new tracks, and a solo acoustic album of previously released material. With nothing new of any real substance to speak of, the fickle music-buying audience drifted away. Even his most loyal fans were wondering what was up.
When Yoakam finally did release an album of new material in 2000, Tomorrow's Sounds Today, radio ignored it. Fan support soured -- and newer, younger, prettier artists were there to fill the gap. Even Yoakam's concert attendance numbers have suffered. Currently he's part of a package tour with Brooks & Dunn -- making him a non-headline act for the first time in almost 15 years.
To a large extent, Yoakam is a victim of his own choices. He clearly made the decision to move into film -- and despite the failure of South of Heaven, he's still doing fairly well as an actor. Granted, he hasn't achieved the level of success he once had in the music business, but he's not giving up.
Meanwhile, the new music he's making is just as good as it ever was -- particularly the grossly under-promoted South of Heaven soundtrack. In concert, he still sports that signature swagger, and his back catalog holds up well over time.
Yoakam is living life as he sees fit, and he's obviously aware of the consequences of his decisions. He does what he wants, and if it suits his audience, that's just fine with him. If not, at least he's in control of his own destiny. After all, things change.
Dwight Yoakam performs at the Neon Circus & Wild West Show Sun., June 16, at Philips Arena, One Philips Drive. Cledus T. Judd, Trick Pony, Gary Allen, and Brooks & Dunn also perform. 5 p.m. $42.50. 404-249-6400. www.ticketmaster.com.
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
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