Good country music is like a never-ending tug of war, a stalemate where both sides get declared losers, because no one wins in country music. That's in the rule book. In good country music, two things that can't possibly be true at the same time are true, which is why it breaks your heart and makes you want to bang your forehead on the table, the way life does. In contrast, most of the stuff played on top-40 country stations is basically soft pop with a soft twang, every bit a cardboard cutout -- and nobody gets heartsick over cardboard. Good country music grabs you by the collar, looks you in the eye and says, "I still want her. I'm better off without her." All you can do is reach for a longneck and say, "Yeah, that makes sense to me."
Dwight Yoakam gets played on top-40 country stations. His new CD, "Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam's Greatest Hits From the '90s," showcases songs that are musically spanking clean -- there's not a hair out of place in the production. You'd think all this would put him in the cardboard-cutout camp, but it's not that simple, because his marvelous voice has a heartfelt, plaintive, bare-wood, honkytonk edge influenced by Buck Owens and Roy Orbison. Yoakam knows where to find every molecule of pathos when he sings, "You're the one, you're the one that made me cry," and he knows how to do a little wry two-step over the line, "I don't feel no hurt at all/ Unless you count when teardrops fall." Poor guy. Yoakam cries a lot.
So his voice reveals a sweet, rumpled weeper, but his songs glint like Hollywood celebrities. And, well, Yoakam dates Hollywood celebrities, who probably give him a second look because his songs are kind of slick, and he wears impossibly tight jeans, and he cries a lot. But anyone who's seen "Sling Blade," in which he did an amazing job playing a lout, knows that Yoakam's cowboy hat, which is always -- always -- pulled real low and sexy, covers some alarmingly un-Hollywood-like thinning hair.
Yoakam doesn't do interviews, except maybe with The New York Times or Rolling Stone. If he did, I'd ask him about all those teardrops. I'd tell him that his singing about crying makes me want to cry, but then I think about how everything around him is so perfectly put together, and I have a hard time feeling sorry for him anymore. I'd tell him all the polish weakens his case. And then I'd say that, damn, weakening his case is pretty charming, especially because he seems to be such a sad sack who just wants simple things. That's what I'd say. Or I'd just ask him what kind of grease he uses to get into those tight jeans.
At times Yoakam writes bleak, masochistic lyrics. On "Thinking About Leaving," one of "Last Chance's" three new songs, which is about feeling restless when you've been with one person for a while, Yoakam sings, "Sometimes I miss that world out there/ So empty, hard and unkind." There you have it: I miss the world. The world is mean and cruel. Don't wonder whether you can believe both of those things at the same time. Just take a sip from a longneck and say, "Yeah. Makes sense to me."