I hadn’t seen Dwight Yoakam in concert in a long time, but at his Americanafest NYC show August 7 at Damrosch Park/Lincoln Center Out of Doors, he hadn’t changed much from when I first saw him here in the early 1980s. He looked to have on the same hat, and it’s not impossible he had the same jean jacket, jeans, shirt and guitar.
And he sounded the same, with that trademark hiccup at the end of his traditional country phrasing on classics like “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Little Ways,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and Buck Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Dwight’s first country chart-topper in 1988 after he cut it with Buck as a duet.
But as big an influence as Buck was on Dwight, Dwight’s current tour pays tribute to “someone who played Americana before there was the name”: the other Bakersfield great—also now deceased—Merle Haggard.
“I learned a lot about songwriting listening to Merle songs,” Dwight said, noting that this applied to his entire generation of songwriters—and “not just country” ones. Among the Hagg hits he performed were “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie from Muskogee,” which he followed with the other side of “the same coin”: Little Feat’s “Willin’.”
Dwight encored with a couple other tributes to recently departed greats in Glenn Frey (The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and George Martin (The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” complete with a Beatles bow by Dwight and the band at the end).
Opening band Cactus Blossoms need be noted for an excellent set, kind of a cross between Everly Brothers and cowboy songs. And Dwight, by the way, has a bluegrass album coming out Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass takes on choice compositions from his catalog.
Someone nudged me on the shoulder a couple Sundays ago in the middle of Lyle Lovett’s show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to point out the obvious: With 14 pieces in His Large Band, it costs a lot of money to put them on the road.
And these weren’t ordinary pieces, not by a long shot. To identify the ones I know: the legendary Russ Kunkel on drums, Matt Rollings on piano, Keith Sewell on guitar and mandolin, John Hagen on cello, Viktor Krauss on bass, Luke Bulla on fiddle, vocalist extraordinaire Francine Reed. Players with credits like these cost money, and that’s not even counting their suits, dry cleaning bills, and three tour buses.
And the way Lyle treats his musicians speaks plenty about what kind of guy he is. Not only did he introduce everyone at Lincoln Center, he related where everyone was from, how long they’d been with him (some since 1978!), and what they do when they’re not with him.
“It’s nice to get together with your close friends and your family, no matter what the occasion is,” he said, then, leading into his wonderful “Since the Last Time” take on funerals, added, “Sometimes even a solemn occasion can be joyful.” So many of his musicians had made their own records or played on so many major recordings, he noted, that “the world wouldn’t be the same without them.”
So he let each band member mention his outside work and gave many of them solo spots, most notably Reed, who actually began the show singing her great version of the Ida Cox blues classic “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” from the middle of the audience before joining Lovett on stage on “What Do You Do.” Bulla was beautiful on “The Temperance Reel,” and Sewell likewise shined brightly on one of his songs. Lovett also brought out Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael to help out on a tune: “I travel around, so my friends cannot escape me,” Lovett said. “But when you see your old friends you realize that life just can’t get any better—which is a sobering thought when you realize they aren’t going to get any better!”
But the respect Lovett shows for his band extends into space and suffuses his entire fan base. Looking out into the August Lincoln Center evening crowd, he expressed delight that there was still plenty of sunlight for him to see how well-dressed everyone was—when it was clearly shorts and t-shirts.
He also expressed how he’s grateful every day that his folks gave him the opportunity to pursue music, and were so supportive of a pursuit that has since led him to the White House, where he has participated in the Country Music and The Gospel Tradition installments of the PBS series In Performance at the White House. He delved easily into both genres at Lincoln Center, centering on his own unique niche of country swing that’s more big band jazz than traditional Texas or Western swing.
But being Texan really underlies Lovett’s work: “I talk so much about my home state,” he said, “and I got to see so much of it on weekend road trips through the windshield, where you get an up close look at the world that you don’t get sitting in the back.”
He ended with one of my favorite songs of his, “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” a sweet appraisal of obvious outsiders who are nevertheless welcomed warmly. He was even sweeter himself afterward, bringing out his own photographer to take his pictures with everyone at the meet-and-greet. Mine showed me in shorts and the same worn-out golf shirt I seem to wear whenever my picture’s taken, that and a fraying army web belt with the end looking like it’s dangling out of my open fly—which it wasn’t, I hastily add.