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Two modern artists take tradition into the future

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Any modern-day musician working in a traditional form of music at some point must confront a tough question: How can he or she measure up to his or her influences? The reason for the initial attraction is obvious: Who can deny the power of Muddy Waters, of Hank Williams, of Charlie Parker, of Little Richard? Compare the terse punch of these musicians' classic sounds with the chart toppers of today, and it's understandable how a young musician might find more inspiration in the past than in the present.

On the other hand, can a traditionalist be seen as anything more than an imitator or a revivalist? Waters, Williams, Parker, and Little Richard were innovators whose music intrinsically reflected their times. Someone who dons Western clothes to sing country music today purposely sends a nostalgic signal to fans. They're playing dress-up, and they're urging listeners to join them in a fantasy where country music means simplicity and honesty, or where the blues means swagger and danger. It's a trip to a lost world, an escape from reality rather than a reflection of it.

In blues and country, ambitious young traditionalists should consider another question as well: How many hardcore purists rank among the leading artists of their generation? Scores of journeymen bands playing roots music draw nightclub crowds across the United States every weekend, but few rise to the top of the record charts without making huge concessions to modern rock or pop music.

Few blues or country purists these days have gained the attention and status afforded the best-known artists of their eras. But there are those rare performers who manage to sustain high-profile careers, and two of them appear at the Ryman Auditorium on consecutive nights in the coming week. The Robert Cray Band (Aug. 24) and Dwight Yoakam (Aug. 25) have both managed to take traditional American music forms and mold them into a personal, distinctive sound. Thanks to a few radio hits and plenty of media coverage, both performers have stayed squarely in the public eye for the better part of two decades.

Moreover, both currently stand at the top of their creative game. Cray's recent release, Take Your Shoes Off, may be the best album of his career; it's certainly his most impressive outing since 1986's Strange Persuasion, a multimillion seller that included the radio smash "Smoking Gun." Meanwhile, Yoakam is touring behind Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam's Greatest Hits from the '90s, which makes the case that this California-based singer-songwriter ranks among the most interesting and ingenious traditional country performers of the last decade.

Robert Cray
Robert Cray

Cray and Yoakam share more common ground than one might think: They're both photogenic men who put a lean, cool spin on their respective idiom of choice. It would be hard to come up with better poster boys for their genres: They're attractive enough to draw the attention of the media, artistic enough to lure the applause of critics, and stubborn enough to stick to their guns when others would have sold themselves out for a chance at a bigger slice of the entertainment pie.

Ultimately, they both take an intellectual approach to what they do. No one's going to think Cray truly is as blue or as angry as some of his songs suggest, nor does anyone believe that Yoakam is as lonely or as desperate as some of the characters in his songs. In that sense, they're not Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Hank Willliams, or Merle Haggard; the music is not a direct personification of how they live or who they are.

But both have found a way to use traditional music to express something important and universal about themselves and about life. Moreover, they're very exacting stylists; there's not a misplaced note or sound on any of their recordings, and when their songs are played on the radio, it's immediately obvious who's singing. They don't sound like anyone else, which is a rarity among blues and country musicians these days.

The two Grammy winners broke through nationally at about the same time, in 1986. After building some steam as independent artists working the West Coast, the two released their first major-label records that year. The resulting albums--Cray's Strange Persuasions and Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.--remain signature works, establishing a style and a sound that the two would draw upon from then on.

Of the two, Yoakam has proven more creative in bringing new ideas to the traditional form that serves as his base. As Last Chance in a Thousand Years underscores, Yoakam in the '90s expanded his retro-cool take on hillbilly shuffles, rockabilly stompers, and barroom laments to forge a sound more uniquely his own. By bringing in touches of '60s soul and psychedelic rock, the Kentucky native artfully updated his sound into something unpredictable and distinctive. Only a precious few country performers--Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Emmylou Harris, and Freakwater among them--have created a body of work in this decade that stakes out such powerful, personal ground.

Yoakam's 14-song retrospective features several signature hits, including such high points as "The Heart That You Own," "Fast As You," and "Ain't That Lonely Yet." It also contains three new tunes, including "Thinking About Leaving," an outstanding song he cowrote with Rodney Crowell, as well as the snappy cover of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" that's currently being heard in a TV commercial for a clothing manufacturer.

Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam

On the other hand, Cray's albums became stuck in the same groove for most of the '90s. With 1997's Sweet Potato Pie, his seventh and final album for Mercury Records, he attempted to infuse a new spirit in his sound by recording in Memphis. But the songs still sounded bloodless.

He apparently found what he was looking for at Nashville's Woodland Studios, which is where he recorded Take Your Shoes Off. Enlisting the help of producer Steve Jordan, a drummer best known for his work with Keith Richards and Aretha Franklin, Cray tapped into a sweetly soulful sound that adds a sensual, human touch to his voice and his songs.

This time, a Memphis spirit does pervade the record. But instead of the punchy sound of Wilson Pickett or Sam & Dave, Cray lays back into a slinky, finger-snapping groove that has more in common with Al Green or the Otis Redding of "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." It's by far the warmest and most romantic Cray has sounded on record--a shift he credits to Jordan, who encouraged the singer to get closer to the microphone and to explore a subtler aspect of his vocal range. The result is a smooth yet manly sound that works wonderfully, and Cray exploits it fully with a variety of smart, seductive tunes that add a new dimension to his talents.

As the successes of Cray and Yoakam suggest, perhaps the question isn't how they measure up to their influences. Instead, it's a question of an artist finding a personal style that fits, and one that allows room for continued exploration and expansion. As role models, Cray and Yoakam are still works in progress--which is high praise for modern-day performers who've been at it as long as they have.

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