The 56-year-old Kentucky native began getting noticed in the early 1980s, a depressing era in country music when a Kenny Rogers/Sheena Easton duet on “We’ve Got Tonight” was a representative chart topper. Yoakam helped disrupt Nashville’s waltz with schmaltz while hanging out on Los Angeles’s burgeoning cowpunk scene and promoting a more traditional brand of country music that had closer ties to early Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard than it had to Rogers and Easton.
On his current tour, Yoakam is featuring material from “3 Pears,” an album released in 2012, seven years after his last album of original songs.
He’s still way into the throwback vibe. Backed by a quartet with a wardrobe glitzy enough to trigger a rhinestone shortage, Yoakam opened with “Take Hold of My Hand,” a jangly piece of 1960s-sounding country rock that he wrote with Robert Ritchie (a.k.a. Kid Rock). “A Heart Like Mine” was a garage rocker propelled by his bandmates yelling the lyrics in harmony. The verses of “Waterfall” have lyrics about animals and fantasies that would make you think Yoakam wanted to write a children’s song, but then the chorus turns and he’s warbling about how real life ain’t all fun and games.
Yoakam has said he named his latest record in tribute to John Lennon and the Beatles. Yoakam and the Fab Four shared a massive passion for Buck Owens, and he delivered two covers early in the set — “Streets of Bakersfield” and “Act Naturally.” The latter tune, with lines about a guy alternately bragging about becoming a movie star and begging people to come watch his films, is by now a perfect cover for Yoakam, given how he put his music career on hold in the 1990s to give the big screen a shot.
Yoakam also showcased songs from perhaps his best album, “This Time,” which was released 20 years ago. The crowd united in a nostalgic and appreciative roar during the first few bars of the super-downer ballad “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” the New Orleans-y title track and the caffeinated shuffle “Fast As You.” The roars continued whenever Yoakam broke into his trademark stage move: a boot-scooting, sideways moonwalk.
He played a lot from everything else, too. He had the crowd singing with him on “I Sang Dixie,” a 1989 chart-topping ballad about the cruelties of “damned old” Los Angeles, and “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” a 1991 tune he wrote with fellow roots-conscious genius Roger Miller.
Yoakam jammed 34 tunes into his two-hour-plus set. And other than a few reminiscences about playing at the original 9:30 Club on F Street early in his career, he talked rarely and usually signaled the band to jump into another song about half a beat after finishing the last. Among the greatest moments of a performance loaded with great moments came with covers of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and the Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac.” Yoakam has been playing both of those rockabilly nuggets since his career started, but on this night he made sure they still sound, well, as good as old.
McKenna is a freelance writer.