Dwight Yoakam is an artist who has long attracted a uniquely wide fan base in country music, a genre not traditionally known for its crossover appeal. Yoakam, however, is not your traditional country artist. During his heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he churned out hit after hit of some of the most authentic country music of the time, he was neither alt- nor pop-country; too big for any subgenre, but too niche in his retro honky tonk sound to be fully embraced by the mainstream.
This had a lot to do with his beginnings, playing the punk clubs of Los Angeles with the likes of the Blasters, X and Los Lobos just to get a gig. He would go on to top the charts alongside mega mainstream acts like Garth Brooks and Randy Travis, launch a steady acting career and cut an album with Beck, among other highlights. His career skyrocketed through it all, but somehow Yoakam remained somewhere in the middle, that hard-to-define place between mainstream country and cult Americana.
I was hoping his recent concert at the Moore (that took place January 13th) would offer a little insight into this notable intersection of sound, and I invited Caitlin Sherman of psychedelic honky tonk band Evening Bell along to join me.
Like Yoakam, whose voice is at once full of heartache and twang but doesn't sound out of place on a cover of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," Sherman’s is well-adapted to both rock and country, too. Rich and billowy, with a hint of smoke, it hits all the right notes alongside co-singer Davidson Hart Kingsbery’s whiskey-soaked vocals. "Our love of classic country may have been the starting point [for the collaboration]," Sherman said, "but our mutual admiration of David Bowie and other English rockers that did their own spin on American roots music like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, combined with dark, cinematic composers like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Hermann sealed the deal."
You can hear elements of all Sherman and Kingsbery's shared influences on the band’s dazzling first full length album, Dying Stars. Yoakam would surely approve: it's a brand of country far rootsier and more gritty than anything you’d find in the gleaming mainstream these days. A sound that recalls a different era of the genre, the age of roadhouse country when George Jones and Tammy Wynette crooned out from the jukebox, only Evening Bell’s version applies an extra sheen of reverb, dreamy steel guitar and twinkling, saloon-style piano performed by Sherman.
Yoakam himself adapted his own style from his hero Buck Owens, who with Merle Haggard pioneered the Bakersfield country sound, which in the late ‘50s and ‘60s was the alt-country of the time. This night Yoakam served up plenty of covers by both, but when he started in on a medley of Haggard tunes, it was “Silver Wings” Sherman liked best. “The first time Hart and I ever sang together was for a Merle Haggard tribute almost four years ago,” Sherman said later. “After that performance we knew we were in for it: we were going to make music together.”
Yoakam dedicated those songs, which included a version of “Okie From Muskogee” that went down really well, to Haggard, one of many beloved musicians who passed away last year. We chatted about that in the lobby before the show: 2016, the year that claimed everyone from Prince to David Bowie. Sherman was sad to lose the Hag but crushed by the loss of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, her “most favorite songwriter.” “I heard his song ‘Suzanne’ in my 10th grade English class and have been listening and studying ever since,” she said.
Despite the setbacks and losses of last year, Sherman is looking forward to the possibilities of the new one. There’s a new album to shop around, more shows to play and at least another album’s worth of songs to record, too.
Taking in the crowd as we talked, it was abundantly clear there was a higher concentration of cowboy hats and Wranglers on hand than what's typical for Seattle: Yoakam’s “mainstreamers” were out in good numbers. Yet a fair contingent of fans in black-rimmed glasses, blue jeans rolled at the ankle and Filson were in attendance too, his rock and indie fans. Yoakam’s admirers across the spectrum had again faithfully assembled at that curious intersection, a place of common ground, at least for a few hours.
It's no easy feat, Sherman said, when most mainstream country these days is reviled by "those of us on the fringes." In fact, Top 40 country is what Kingsbery listens to to stay awake on long drives in the van.
"When he is tired on the road and is behind the wheel, he'll tune into whichever Top 40 country station comes in to keep himself awake. It either makes him so angry he rants or it's so ridiculous he laughs his ass off. Either way it drives the rest of us crazy."
Evening Bell’s new album is called Dying Stars. The band plays the Sunset Tavern this Saturday.