My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Released in July 1987, Dwight Yoakam’s sophomore effort built upon the success of the previous year’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Like its predecessor, it reached the top spot on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, though it failed to produce any Top 5 singles and ultimately didn’t sell quite as well. Pete Anderson was back on board as producer. Yoakam was the sole songwriter for seven of the album’s tracks; the remaining three tracks were covers of well-known country and rock songs.

Overall, the album has a more rockabilly feel than its hardcore honky-tonk predecessor. This was immediately apparent with the release of the lead single, “Little Sister”, which had been a Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for Elvis Presley in 1961. Yoakam’s version reached #7 on the country singles chart. The next release, the self-penned “Little Ways” had a more Bakersfield sound, while “Please, Please Baby” was also in a rockabilly vein. These tracks peaked at #8 and #6 respectively and allow the listener to hear a side of Yoakam that hadn’t been as apparent on his debut album.

Based on the first three singles, one might think that Hillbilly Deluxe is a rockabilly-dominated album, but it is, in fact, a quite diverse and eclectic set of songs. Dwight takes a detour into more traditional territory for the album’s fourth and final single, a polished cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late With Your Kisses”, a #9 hit that is one of my favorite tracks on the album despite the slightly intrusive background vocals which make the record sound a bit dated to modern ears.

The rest of the album is more traditional. “Smoke Along The Track” is a cover of a 1959 Stonewall Jackson hit, and “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23″, another Yoakam original composition seems reminiscent of Merle Haggard’s early records. Less polished are the fiddle-driven “Throughout All Time” and “This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me”. Both tracks were too rootsy to be considered for release as radio singles; the latter track was a remake of one of Dwight’s unreleased recordings that helped him secure his deal with Warner Bros. The original version, probably recorded at the same time as the tracks that were on the original Guitars, Cadillacs EP, can be heard on the expanded 20th anniversary re-release of Guitar, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. which was released by Rhino Records in 2006.

My favorite track on the album is “Johnson’s Love”, a beautiful, understated ballad about, what else — a broken heart. It’s somewhat similar in theme to “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, but unlike in that classic recording, the protagonist in Yoakam’s song continues to pine after his lost love even after his own death:

And some people claim they still hear him call her name
“Hey, hey, Maureen”, swear they hear it just that plain
Deep in the night, and oh, sometimes right at dawn
See his body died some years ago, but around here
Mr. Johnson’s love lives on.

Enjoyable as this album is, I don’t like it quite as much as Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc, though Dwight deserves a pat on the back for making a deliberate and conscious effort to make a record that is different from the first one, instead of opting for the easier, play-it-safe route, which might have scored him some bigger hits at radio. Today’s artists would be well advised to take note.

Grade: A-

Hillbilly Deluxe
is available on CD and as a digital download from Amazon and iTunes.

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6 responses to “Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

  1. Tom January 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    …”johnson’s love” is one of the perfect answers to the question: “what’s country music?”

  2. Ken Johnson January 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    In the midst of country music’s late 1980′s decline into boring, insipid pop-flavored ballads by artists like Alabama, Gary Morris, Ronnie Milsap, Dan Seals, Michael Johnson, Lee Greenwood, Steve Wariner and Restless Heart the arrival of this album in the spring of 1987 was most welcome.

    It appears that your release date info is off by several months as this album debuted on the Billboard Country Album chart on May 16, 1987 and held the #1 position the weeks of June 6 & June 13.

    A definite breath of fresh air at that time, Dwight’s second album provided welcome relief from the overproduced Nashville music factory. His Kentucky bluegrass roots were more evident and his songwriting was much deeper and richer than on his first album.

    I concur that “Johnson’s Love” is truly a masterpiece. Former Buck Owens’ Buckaroo Tom Brumley’s steel guitar exponentially magnifies the emotional level of Dwight’s lyrics. “1000 Miles” is equally heartbreaking punctuated by superb fiddle fills from Brantley Kearns.

    The arrangement of “Always Late” using background vocals to echo the title line was borrowed from Lefty Frizzell’s remake of his own 1951 hit. When Lefty re-cut several of his earlier hits in late 1958 background vocals (perhaps the Anita Kerr Singers) were added as that was the current trend. My guess is that perhaps Dwight grew up listening to that version from Lefty’s “The One And Only Lefty Frizzell” album.

    All four singles were a pleasure to play on the radio. Sonically they truly stood out against the other lame stuff that was masquerading as country music at that time. “Little Ways” was like a drink of ice cold water to country fans thirsty for the real thing.

    I definitely give this album an A+ rating and rate it every bit as good as it’s predecessor. As I relistened today it sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when I first played it nearly 24 years ago on the tape cassette in my truck radio.

  3. Rick January 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I’m only familiar with “Johnson’s Love” from the “Will Sing For Food” songwriter’s tribute album to Dwight, but feel it is probably the best written song on that album. Rhonda Vincent’s cover of “I Sang Dixie” is a close second.

    Now wait a minute Ken! Radio might have only played mostly country-lite pop songs from Dan Seals (“Bop” being a perfect example), but his album “Won’t Be Blue Any More” contains some top notch real country songs! I consider “Headin’ West” and Dan’s version of “Tobacco Road” to be comparable in quality to these early Dwight albums. And don’t forget about the Gary Morris song “Headed For A Heartache” either.

    • Ken Johnson January 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Rick:

      No question that Dan Seals, Gary Morris and the other acts I mentioned did at some point in their career record music that more closely resembled what can realistically be considered “country” music. Perhaps I didn’t clearly make my point. Around the time that Dwight’s second album was released (early 1987) all of those acts (and many others) were releasing some of the most boring and forgetable singles of their careers:

      Dan Seals: You Still Move Me, I Will Be There
      Gary Morris: Leave Me Lonely, Plain Brown Wrapper
      Alabama: Touch Me when We’re Dancing, You’ve Got The Touch
      Ronnie Milsap:How Do I Turn You On
      Steve Wariner: Small Town Girl, The Weekend
      Restless Heart: I’ll Still Be Loving You

      If anyone had insomnia during that era, a quick
      listen to a country radio station would cure you.

      Compared to that dreck Dwight Yoakam was a much needed antidote.

      • J.R. Journey January 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

        I’d agree with you about every one of those songs being snoozers except ‘The Weekend’. I’ve always had an affinity for Wariner’s brand of smooth crooning and songs like ‘The Weekend’, ‘Leave Him Out of This’, and ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ are some of my favorites.

      • Razor X January 8, 2011 at 5:21 pm

        Things were much, much better in 1987 than they were just a few years earlier. In addition to Dwight’s album, Randy Travis had the #1 album for months with Always and Forever , George Strait, Reba, and The Judds were all making authentic country music. Tanya Tucker was back on the charts and a lot the veteran acts were starting to record more traditional music. What I wouldn’t give to get back to that!

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