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Dwight Yoakam Pays Tribute to Bakersfield Sound at Intimate Hamptons Show

Dwight Yoakam SiriusXM
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Dwight Yoakam performs for SiriusXM in the Hamptons at the Stephen Talkhouse: Performance Airs Live On SiriusXM on Aug. 30, 2017 in Amagansett, N.Y.

"A little bit of Bakersfield in the Hamptons never hurt anyone."

Dwight Yoakam was standing onstage at the Stephen Talkhouse -- a tiny, low-ceilinged venue in the Hamptons, where the walls are jammed full of 1960s-style pin-up photos -- on Wednesday night, proselytizing for the craggy, hardscrabble, boot-scooting strain of country music known as the "Bakersfield Sound."

His performance was broadcast live by Sirius XM on its Outlaw Country and Prime Country channels, and a small group of subscribers was on hand to watch Yoakam -- encased in denim, hat brim pulled low over frosty eyes, with a crackling, rhinestone-speckled band behind him -- as he performed selections from his back catalog and tributes to his idols: Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who helped put Bakersfield on country's map, as well as The Beatles.

The coming long weekend on Sirius' Prime Country channel will be dedicated to "Dwight Yoakam & the Bakersfield Beat," a selection of Yoakam's songs next to tunes by artists he admires. Filling this role -- a guard of country tradition, as well as a guide to it -- comes easily for the singer. When Yoakam debuted 31 years ago, he was immediately intent on establishing a lineage from his pedal-to-the-metal honky tonk back to Owens and others who favored concision, Appalachian-indebted vocal delivery and hot-stepping rhythms. He pledged allegiance to "hillbilly music," a catch-all term for country forms that was later replaced by "country & western" in 1958.

Yoakam hit country with the impact of a cruise missile: between 1986 and 1989, he sent nine of his first ten singles to the Top Ten on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. He entered the genre in the nick of time; not long after his chart barrage, singers intent on expanding country's purview started to take over -- Garth Brooks, Shania Twain -- and country's expansionist wing has maintained a tight grip on the genre's mainstream ever since, leaving less room for Haggard and Owens' most devoted followers.

But regardless of these changes, Yoakam's songs have a number of enduringly delightful qualities, all of which were on display onstage: they're tenaciously melodic and invested in the idea of country as dance music, something that much of the genre has forgotten. Add to that his voice, which is nasal and malleable and flighty -- Yoakam loves to insert swooping climbs and nose-dive plummets into his phrases, making him pleasingly unpredictable in a way few artists can match. Some singers beeline diligently from point A to point B; Yoakam finds a more scenic route.

This makes him mostly unimpeachable as a live performer. He zipped through a series of the impregnable three-minute musical fortresses in his back catalog -- "Little Sister," "Please, Please Baby," "Streets of Bakersfield," "I'll Be Gone" -- with little banter and lethal competence. The rhythm section built a clean latticework of grooves, with the drummer's fat thwacks slotting neatly next to the bassist's resonant thuds. Occasionally the band would drop out halfway through a line to let Yoakam finish unaccompanied and then roar back to life. When the engine seemed like it was close to overheating, Yoakam slipped in a ballad like Haggard's "Silver Wings" or his own "It Won't Hurt." 

That's not to say it was all smooth sailing -- Yoakam was displeased with the sound quality in the small venue, which was pulverizingly loud. "Those are brave people standing in the speakers over there, God bless you," he said, scanning the crowd stage right. "You won't be the same ever again… there will be things drooping all over [you]."

But Yoakam's career is nothing if not a demonstration of persistence, so he carried on despite his frustrations, finding comfort in his very first single. "I'm a honky tonk man," he sang. "And I can't seem to stop."   

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