Blame the Hat

by Josef Woodard

DY070_b5_48.jpgWESTWARD HOME: Twenty years or so ago, a Kentuckian headed west on a musical mission, with what some considered a wayward compass. He proved ’em wrong — and still does. Dwight Yoakam loaded up his guitars and big ol’ hats in his proverbial Cadillac, dreaming of high-class hillbilly women and chasing the heart of country music as he heard it. He had tried Nashville, but it left him dry. For himself and guitarist/producer pal Pete Anderson, it was Bakersfield or bust; or at least his notion of the old sound outta’ Bakersfield — “Nashville West,” home of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Now, Owens has passed on (although his Crystal Palace club remains there) and Yoakam has carved himself a sweet piece of a pie of a career for himself over the last two decades.

The chance to hear him live, to hear him twang and brood with his fine band, is always a good reason to get out of the house. Of late, Yoakam has been playing the Majestic Ventura Theatre, the venue whose blend of swank and funk suits his music to a T. On Friday, he shows up in Santa Barbara County, playing the Chumash Casino.

We ain’t hearing Yoakam on the radio much lately, but he’s doing fine work. Last year, he released his first original album in years, the downright excellent Blame the Vain (New West). Stepping away from Anderson for the moment, Yoakam penned every song and lyric, and produced it, too. He’s still got that thing. But what is it?

A likable but also mysterious outsider then and now, Yoakam was an odd man out in the mid-’80s L.A. scene in which he landed, playing alongside Los Lobos, X, and the Blasters, whose various roots connections made them extended kinfolk. Don’t listen to historical revisionists: Los Angeles has been a strong and surging country music town for decades, even if it came in mutant flavors, doctored up by Gram Parsons, the Eagles, and the Mavericks. Yoakam has played his private role in SoCal’s C&W tradition, as well. He even did the de rigeur L.A. turn by dabbling in the movies (playing a great bad guy in Sling Blade and making his own movie-nobody-wanted-to-see-or-talk-about, South of Heaven, West of Hell).

His personalized drawl is half-real, half-borrowed, an equation that also accounts for the charm of his sound and his persona. A man out of time and scene, Yoakam is always at his best when mixing up honky tonk and Bakersfield work, spiced with early Beatles touches and maybe some Everly Brothers. He was here before “alt-country” became a catchphrase and is essentially making the same music he did when he first snuck onto radio with “Guitars, Cadillacs.” Bring it on.

Who is this guy, and why is he still nabbing our earlobes and exciting our dancing feet? Maybe his long-haul secret has to do with the facts that real country stars are stubborn lone-wolf individualists, and that good country music just plain feels good, no matter the year or the zip code.

TO-DOINGS: A few years ago, Peter Ostroushko first played in the Song Tree Concert Series, a semi-secret music series of note at the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist church in Goleta. Ostroushko, best known as a mandolinist who also fiddles and sings on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, had just stopped with Keillor and company at the Bowl. He returns to Song Tree this Sunday afternoon. Ian Bernard, the Santa Ynez-based jazz pianist whose résumé includes playing with Chet Baker, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mandel, and music directing for TV’s Laugh-In, plays at SOhO on Sunday. Joining him in the group will be Téka — singing standards — bassist Randy Tico and drummer Tom Lackner. (Got e?

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