TERRY GROSS, HOST:
"3 Pears" is Dwight Yoakam's first album of new material in seven years. Rock critic Ken Tuckers says that the country music singer-songwriter persists in mixing genres. That may leave him out of the country mainstream but it puts him in a good position to make a personal album that contains some of his best music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRYING")
DWIGHT YOAKAM: (Singing) I've been trying for so long and this trying just goes on because I keep trying to hold on to my heart, to my heart. I've been waiting...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Dwight Yoakam has been trying to carve out his place in the music industry for decades now, with regular side trips into the film industry as an actor. In a way, this is the key to the difficulty he's had maintaining the visibility he deserves. There persists among many the feeling that Yoakam is acting out the role of the country star and that he not-so-secretly feels he's slightly above the genre he tries to write hits for.
Yoakam's admirers - of whom I am very much one - see him slightly differently. As is abundantly clear on this new album, "3 Pears," he declines to fit into market categories for very long, jumping within each album from nasal Nirvana honky-tonk, to ringing pop-rock like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HEART LIKE MINE")
YOAKAM: (Singing) I saw you coming. You saw me and took off running, shells in your eye. What, such a sweet disguise. I wonder why you never try to understand a heart like mine.
TUCKER: That song, which has the reverberations and hand clap percussion of a 1960s chunk of British Invasion rock, was co-produced by Beck, a singer-songwriter not known for his country music affiliations. Yoakam liked the Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison, "Living in the Material World." This album, "3 Pears," takes its title from a scene in which John Lennon plays around with three pairs of glasses. It's inspired one of the two best songs on the album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3 PAIRS OF GLASSES")
YOAKAM: (Singing) Three pairs of glasses, three pairs of shades, three pairs of other things, are all there in spades. Three pairs of shoeless feet, three mindless thoughts, three pairs of wishes for all that you want. And that means where you are is where you're at. When your head is cold you put on a hat. If you can't recall, just remember that to wear three pairs of shades and three pairs of glasses.
TUCKER: Pop music critic Don McLeese has a new book out called "Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere." It does a fine job of chronicling the wayward path Yoakam's career has taken, starting as a Kentucky-born, self-proclaimed hillbilly who found initial recognition in early '80s Los Angeles in the last throes of punk rock.
He was pushing a back-to-basics music at a time when Garth Brooks and urban cowboy pop-country was ascendant. Yoakam's period as a hit country act in the late '80s nevertheless has always left him positioned as an outsider, and he's never even enjoyed the rock critic good press that colleagues such as Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle enjoyed.
Chalk it up to orneriness, to the tired old plaint of lacking authenticity, but Dwight has traveled not merely a lonely road, but a career path he had to pave essentially by himself. One notable thing about all this is how artfully such struggle surfaces in his music. Which leads me to this album's other great song, "Long Way to Go."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LONG WAY TO GO")
YOAKAM: (Singing) I've got a long way to go before I get there. I had a lot of field to hoe. The sun is so high. I've got a lot of miles of road and the next few only show that there's still such a long way to go. Dreaming is only dreaming till dreaming is the only thing that's true. And wishing is only wishing till my only thought's a wish to be with you.
TUCKER: Dwight Yoakam's song about how there's, quote, "still such a long way to go" could be said of his career. You get the feeling that he's a little bit weary and quite a bit wary. He's a guy who essentially wants to sing about having his heart broken, whether it's by a woman or by thwarted ambition, both of which are great eternal subjects around which he's now built what sounds something like close to a great album.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album "3 Pears" by Dwight Yoakam. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.