This edition shouldn’t have been as difficult to compile as it ultimately was, and I’m not speaking to a lack of quality when I say that, either. You see, while Dwight Yoakam has always been known as the Bakersfield revivalist who was one part of a welcome class in the late ‘80s that veered off into his own uniquely distinct lane, going back through his discography revealed an artist who was far more eclectic than just that. Indeed, more than any artist I’ve explored for this feature thus far, this is by far the one that was hard to narrow down to the usual top fifteen, and I did consider expanding the list. Yoakam was just such an incredible singles artist, and even though he’s released great albums throughout his career – even post-radio – they’re consistent to the point of finding it hard to pick individual highlights. Even then, I still ended up with way more selections than I needed.
One last note before we get started. While this feature has always been purposefully subjective, I’d like to stress that again with this list, because when it comes to Yoakam, I’m not sure any two “best of” lists will look all that similar; he’s that versatile and consistently great. But I’ve had my fun revisiting the albums. Let’s get started.
All songs written by Dwight Yoakam unless otherwise noted.
No. 15, “Blame the Vain”
Some of Yoakam’s songs are just nasty little slow-burns, and this is one of them, especially coming off that excellent, rolling, recurring guitar riff. It’s a track that finds him at his wit’s end – get used to hearing that a lot, by the way – trying to salvage a relationship that is obviously and utterly dead, and between the added crunch in the guitar tones and the overall bitter tone, it’s a late-career gem.
No. 14, “Thinking About Leaving” (written by Rodney Crowell and Dwight Yoakam)
This is one of those cases where I have to provide context to the writing credits, in that this is actually a Rodney Crowell song where Yoakam changed the arrangement and theme to depict a man torn between life on the road and the significant other who wants him back home. And I love how it always comes back around to that hook, and how he’s ready to give it all up and settle down for something more stable. Kind of perfect for an artist then entering his third decade as a performer, but there’s also a restlessness here he can’t deny that keeps the road at least somewhat in the back of his mind. It’s two veterans kinda-sorta coming together to produce greatness.
No. 13, “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me”
Ah, yes, a song that foreshadowed Yoakam’s foray into bluegrass decades later. This deep cut off of his sophomore album is a riot, and its only crime is that it’s over before you know it. Then again, Yoakam uses the space he gets here effectively, painting a picture of a man on the brink of death from alcoholism over a broken heart that’s amplified by its frantic pace. He’s got one song in this vein that’s a little better, but this is absolutely a gem that deserves more attention.
No. 12, “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses)”
Maybe it was all supposed to be a precursor to his acting career, but Yoakam always knew how to establish a scene and arrange it so that it defied expectations yet somehow surpassed them anyway. Which is to say that, if you’re not paying close attention to the lyrics, it’s easy to forget that this sparse, reserved cut is a murder ballad. Yet I also love how the slow burn of the excellent accordion and fiddle interplay focuses more on the aching sadness felt by the shooter left betrayed by his significant other. Which, yeah, is also to say that the moral ambiguity is hard to define, especially when the song never directly asks for empathy, but it’s a cutting little song regardless.
No. 11, “Believe”
I should mention here that I’m purposefully not including “Then Came Monday” here, one of Yoakam’s most recent(ish) releases and one that might eventually (and hopefully) lead to a new studio album. I want to wait and see if it makes one before deciding where it belongs in his overall discography, but it would absolutely be right about here. Instead, let’s talk about another late-career gem from his most recent official studio album. And … it’s odd. I’ve always described this song as somewhat hypnotic, from one of Yoakam’s best bass grooves that absolutely carries this alongside his more underplayed delivery playing to a song that could act as a metaphor either for two partners believing in each other to take that next step, or one for a dying love that, nonetheless, the narrator is going to try and salvage anyway. Also, it’s got one of my favorite lines ever from a Yoakam song: “Regret is hope we haven’t learned to see.”
No. 10, “Johnson’s Love”
Off of the same album as “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me,” we have another character on the brink of disaster … and I swear, this is like something of a precursor to “Whiskey Lullaby.” Granted, unlike that song, the pain and shock isn’t as immediate, nor does it extend to both parties. This is simply a glimpse at a slow and agonizing decay of a man who turns into a shell of himself, and then eventually isn’t even that. Ironic as it is, there aren’t a lot of sad and slow country heartbreak songs by Yoakam here, but he was a master of them, all the same.
No. 9, “Never Hold You”
I think the hidden strength behind why I love so many Yoakam songs is his knack for painting individual characters who aren’t so much lonely as they are isolationists. Even in his heartache tracks when there’s another party involved, his characters always seem to act as the observers. And there’s no better example than this, another deep cut that’s among Yoakam’s most riotous songs to date. And here, he’s going to have all of the fun in the world trying to watch others steal his significant other and know that they couldn’t hold her if they tried, half because he knows he’s the coolest guy in the room and half because, even though he acknowledges his own relationship will never last with her, she’ll still be too good for them. Between the frenetic pacing, squonking guitar tones that blend well with the welcome harmonica solo, this is country-punk before it became an actual thing, and it’s awesome.
No. 8, “Guitars, Cadillacs”
“Finally, a song I recognize!”
And what better way to introduce the hits than with the very first one for Yoakam, a song that captured his essence and foreshadowed pretty much everything to come. And the funny thing about Yoakam is that, for as many songs as he has about heartbreak, he’ll either play them with soul-crushing loneliness or nonchalant coolness; there’s no real in-between. And there’s nothing quite like drowning your sorrows in good country music, especially when the song’s arrangement basically echoes Yoakam’s own influences with that rattling Bakersfield mix. The first example of many of how Yoakam commanded the room simply because he was the coolest guy within it.
No. 7, “The Back of Your Hand” (written by Greg Lee Henry)
Another song about a couple on the rocks, only this time around it’s about fighting to hold on rather than accept what’s lost. I like that it’s a little more metaphorical than Yoakam’s traditional songs in this vein, mostly because of Greg Lee Henry’s deft poetry that takes a few listens to grasp and has a simple message at its core. For as far as this couple has drifted apart to the point where one partner hardly recognizes the other, they can always come back to each other, because there’s a history there worth fighting for. It’s a damn shame that this wasn’t a smash comeback hit for Yoakam, but it’s one of his most beautiful deliveries of an excellently written song.
No. 6, “Streets of Bakersfield” (w/ Buck Owens) (written by Homer Joy)
For as much as I can say about one of only two of Yoakam’s No. 1 hits – a fact that just seems criminal to even type – I’d argue it’s the most important single of his career. It was the unlikely duo of him and Buck Owens that not only revitalized the latter artist’s career at a time when more legends were being phased out than ever, but also acted as a bitter protest song of individuality disguised as a feel-good, Tejano-tinged number, because … why not? It’s one of the few songs in his catalog Yoakam didn’t write himself, but it feels like he could have anyway. That it actually was a hit within mainstream Nashville kind of blows my mind, but one thing for sure is that, after hearing this, we sure do know you, Yoakam and Owens, and we sure do like you.
No. 5, “I Sang Dixie”
Of course, while “Streets of Bakersfield” is arguably Yoakam’s most important No. 1 hit, I’d argue “I Sang Dixie” is the even better one, a final lament for a Southerner dying on the streets of Los Angeles from complications with alcoholism, with only one other person there to comfort him while everyone else walks on by. And no, it’s not a city-versus-country sort of tale; it’s a simple plea for compassion and humanity and an examination of two different worlds, if anything. It’s so poignantly simple and beautiful that I’m not sure what to say beyond that, but while the dying man’s tale may have largely gotten shunned within the song itself, its message resonates outside of it, and is one that can’t be ignored.
No. 4, “Nothing” (written by Dwight Yoakam and Kostas)
Go figure. Yoakam’s most creatively ambitious and best project to date is the first one that saw diminished returns at country radio for him. Although, honestly? I kind of get it. A lot of that album was ahead of its time, and between creative percussion lines and unexpected blasts of horns that lead to one of Yoakam’s most mind-warping songs, “Nothing” is arguably its most shining example. Of course, you need that huge, developed sound to properly describe someone trying to process the simple fact that not only is their ex-significant gone from their life, but they don’t love anymore, either. Yes, it would likely read as overdramatic in lesser hands, but Yoakam knows how to keep it focused on the individual’s perspective and a slow mental decay that will eventually lead to, well, nothing. My top four is basically interchangeable, and considering I’ve had moments where I’ve called this my favorite Yoakam song, that says a lot about what’s still ahead.
No. 3, “Suspicious Minds” (written by Mark James)
While I’m largely indifferent to Yoakam’s take on Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” his take on “Suspicious Minds” easily surpasses the original, and I have no fear in saying that. What’s funny about “Suspicious Minds” is just how well it works within Yoakam’s established wheelhouse. It’s another song about a couple on the brink of leaving each other, and yet there’s an urgency in Yoakam’s plea for his significant other to stay that’s infectious, vivacious, damn-near transcendental, and whatever else you want to call it. I debated whether or not I could place this song this high on this list, and then I went back to it, and then I got it all over again. Deliriously catchy in a way that rocks without even feeling that out of place within his discography, this is a cover that Yoakam immortalized.
No. 2, “Fast As You”
I always seem to be the one who really loves this enough to call this one of his favorite Yoakam cuts. Maybe it’s because it was the first song of his I ever heard. It was around the fall of 2007 or so, I think, when it randomly came on the radio. My first thought was that it had to be new, and that I had to know who sang it. Such is the forward-thinking approach of Yoakam’s style, and little did I know every element on display here was a mere trademark of an already established style: a well-developed groove that builds into several fantastic solos, a performer having way too much being as suave as he is, and lyrics that speak to two poison lovers looking to keep up with each other’s treachery, love with abandonment, and likely tear each other down along the way. Rather than find the silver lining, this is toxic in the best way possible.
As always, before we get to the No. 1 pick, let’s get over some honorable mentions. And considering I almost did considering expanding the list proper to 25 tracks, there’s a few more here than usual. No complaints, right?
“It’s Never Alright”
“Long White Cadillac” (written by Dave Alvin)
“Home For Sale”
“The Late Great Golden State” (written by Mike Stinson)
And now, my No. 1 pick.
No. 1, “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”
It’s hard to describe this song without defaulting to descriptors I’ve already used. Yoakam may have had an established formula to his tales of heartbreak, but it was the little details in between the framing and the presentation that always differentiated them. And though I already described “Believe” from before as hypnotic, this is arguably that and more. It’s the sort of tale of the lonely drifter that you can imagine Yoakam singing while walking through, say, the desert at night, capturing mood and essence in a way through the atmospheric guitar tones and mournful “Oh I’s” that’s always reminded me of Gary Allan’s “Smoke Rings in the Dark” in terms of sheer scope and power. It’s one of those songs where words fail me to properly describe why I love it and I default to something primal that bypasses all critical faculties. Couple that with some of Yoakam’s most cutting imagery like “in the mirror there’s a vision of what used to be a man,” and you have not only his most convincing display of pain, but also possibly his best song, and one you don’t just have to hear, but experience.
Next up on Fifteen Favorites, in no particular order: Lyle Lovett, Shania Twain, John Anderson, and more.