Saturday, October 9, 2021

Somewhere else behind

Dwight Yoakam's interpretation of Rodney Crowell's "Thinking About Leaving" appeared on Yoakam's 1999 compilation Last Chance For A Thousand Years: Greatest Hits from the '90s, and was released as a supporting single. The song's credited to both Crowell and Yoakam, though Crowell recorded the song first, in 1995, on his Jewel Of The South album, on which it's credited solely to him. His version is memorable—the song's so great, really, and so unbreakable, that only a willfully sabotaged version can harm it—yet relative to Yoakam's, his take sounds buttoned-up, slick, a bit safe. Yoakam respects the gorgeous changes and the melody of Crowell's original, but adapts the song to his style by dressing up the stately pace with a rich and sonorous guitar hook, a mournful pedal steel guitar (played by Gary Morse), and, via guitarist and longtime ally Pete Anderson's shiny yet warm production, a roomy arrangement that gives plenty of space for interpretation. Yoakam plays with the lyrics in places: love is now a "soft rope" that ties the singer down; a guitar isn't simply desired, it "owns" him; Crowell's life "strung out on the highwire lines" becomes in Yoakam's performance an "every morning" that "leaves somewhere else behind." Both singers are in bed with a woman, though Yoakam neglects to name his.

It's Yoakam's vocal that makes "Thinking About Leaving" his to keep. Yoakam is a deeply expressive singer, and I feel that, outside of his country music idiom, he's under appreciated. His voice is traditional, and ageless ("classic"), and he's capable of reaching tremendous depths within a fairly circumscribed genre, and moving among that genre's vocal and lyric requirements—what casual listeners might dismiss as clichés, what country fans call holy writ—he often makes moving and authentic discoveries. He rounds the corners of the inevitable changes in "Thinking Of Leaving" with such feeling and heavy-lidded world-weariness, as if the song's being composed as we listen and yet we know the story's as old as dirt, the mood moving between sadness, relief, loneliness, and happiness without fully resolving anything. Few singers can get around such a melancholy argument like Yoakam. Part of me wants to resist the song for its well-worn trope that a man naturally yearns for the road and the crowds and the women at the end of that road, yet feels reluctantly pulled back toward home by the loving embrace—that soft rope—of his partner. No one can tie me down, etc.. Yet Yoakam obliterates those banalities, singing, as the greatest singers do, with such deep sentiment—against sentimentality—that even a clichéd conflict can sound, and feel, as new as a fresh, healing wound.

Photo by Yoakam via Third Man Records

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