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-- Adam Heimlich

Dwight Yoakam
A Long Way Home
(Reprise)

Don Walser
Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In
(Watermelon/Sire)

It's sacrilege to admit this in many circles, but I've always been suspect of Dwight Yoakam's supposed genius. It's not the fact that he has effortlessly crossed over into the rock mainstream while countless superior artists -- Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, and Iris DeMent, to name just three -- have to make do with meager sales and critical acclaim. It's not that his records adhere to any sort of cheap formula. Hell, the guy's tried everything from pseudoconcept albums to punk covers, from rockabilly to re-creations of the Bakersfield sound. Although he's never quite pulled any of them off, that kind of artistic stretching in itself is rare among major-label country artists. (Can you imagine George Strait even thinking about tearing into a bluegrass version of the Clash's "Train in Vain"?) And from his '86 debut to the new A Long Way Home, Yoakam has always had a white-hot band and straight-razor-sharp album production, thanks on both counts to his long-time guitarist/ bandleader and knob-twiddler Pete Anderson.

In fact, until recently I wasn't really sure why I couldn't throw my allegiance entirely into the Yoakam camp. I always figured it had something to do with the misogynist mean streak that runs through much of his writing, but anyone who's heard Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" knows male understanding isn't always easy to find in the annals of honky-tonk. After spending some time with A Long Way Home, though, I've figured it out: It's the voice, that pinched, forced, wholly unconvincing twang-and-drawl, which has about as much in common with great country singing as Barbra Streisand does with rip-it-up rock and roll. (Don't believe me? Go back to his 1988 duet with Buck Owens on "Streets of Bakersfield" and hear for yourself. Or for that matter, his first hit, a hapless cover of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man.")

Throughout this new set -- a typically bracing melange of vintage country's various strains -- Yoakam whines with lots of style and little substance, a pathetic squandering of Anderson's sharp work in the studio and behind the boards. And as for that mean streak, it reaches a hateful peak with "The Curse," which, sadly, fits Yoakam's in-song persona as well as those fancy leather pants he's wearing in the disc-tray photo.

Wanna hear a real country singer? Pick up Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, the second album by Don Walser. A sixtysomething honky-tonker from Texas, Walser has a voice that's nothing close to perfect but is perfectly suited for his own rocking originals (see the fiery "Hot Rod Mercury") and sentimental chestnuts ranging from Jimmie Rodgers's "In My Dear Old Southern Home" to Irving Berlin's "Marie." As on his very fine 1996 debut Texas Top Hand, the endlessly charming Walser is surrounded by some of the greatest country players on the planet, including ace guitarists Ray Benson and Scott Walls and piano master Floyd Domino.

But Walser isn't a stuffy traditionalist: On the lovely set-closer "Rose Marie" he collaborates with the avant-garde classical group Kronos Quartet. And if Yoakam showed his fine taste in history by pairing himself with Buck Owens, Walser has an even better ear for the future. What he and remarkable newcomer Mandy Barnett do with the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Teasing Me" is breathtakingly beautiful.

-- John Floyd

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