Can any song be turned into a bluegrass number? And furthermore, should it? Those are the questions I found myself asking as I listened to Dwight Yoakam’s new album, with the tongue-in-cheek title, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…. Yoakam lined up a backing band full of bluegrass music’s top talent and (unlike several other nineties country stars who have recently dipped their toes in bluegrass) set out to reinvent an album’s worth of songs he had recorded previously. As such, the album has a much different feel than, say, the earnestness of Alan Jackson’s The Bluegrass Album or Marty Raybon’s solid country-grass.
On the other hand, Yoakam has always had more of a honky-tonk style than those artists, and he stays true to that here. He doesn’t modify his singing, either toward the high lonesome or the smoother style preferred by many modern traditional acts. While it’s obvious that bluegrass instruments are being used, listeners will be hard-pressed to find anything resembling 1-4-5 drive, and the banjo and fiddle occasionally sound somewhat out of place, such as on Listen, with its swooping, California-in-the-sixties harmonies.
Where the album works, it works pretty well. Two Doors Down preserves the basic melody of the original, and both the style and the lyrics fit well in the bluegrass format. Yoakam’s vocals are soulful and emotional as he sings about trying to find solace in a bar, and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle adds an extra layer of lonesomeness. Adam Steffey’s mandolin and a healthy dose of swagger from Yoakam kick off What I Don’t Know, which has been given a full bluegrass makeover. It’s another track with lyrics that might easily be from a bluegrass song: “Death row in prison don’t look half as bad as a life filled with heartache over you, so if you’re playing those dirty little games, you better pray that I don’t find out the truth.”
Steffey also kicks off Please, Please Baby, which is a fun honky-tonk shuffle that allows the pickers to let loose a bit, especially Scott Vestal on banjo. Gone (That’ll Be Me) is the closest thing to straightforward bluegrass on the album, and also one of the biggest reinventions. In place of the groove-filled Bakersfield country-rock of the original, Yoakam’s crooning is set to banjo guided, traditional-ish instrumentation, as well as some hand claps and shouts. Home for Sale is an interesting mixture of Stanley-esque bluegrass and classic country vocals, with especially fine guitar from Bryan Sutton.
Two tracks that would-be listeners may be most intrigued about are Guitars, Cadillacs (perhaps Yoakam’s most well-known song) and the cover of Purple Rain, tacked on at the end after Yoakam heard of Prince’s passing. Guitars, Cadillacs lacks the punch and strut of the instantly identifiable original; it reminds me of when a decent bluegrass band is hit with an out-of-the-blue request at a festival and wants to have a little fun with it. Purple Rain is certainly unexpected, but it has an enjoyable, stripped-down arrangement with an organic feel. No, it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the album, but it is neat hearing a song so sonically different from bluegrass performed in this style.
So what’s the verdict? Personally, I don’t think just any song can be transformed into bluegrass. The time signatures, tempos, vocal phrasing, and other elements of many songs – even from the country genre – make it so that they can’t just be crammed into a box with a banjo and called bluegrass. Sure, it’s cool hearing Dwight Yoakam sing with bluegrass style accompaniment and giving recognition to the style of music we all hold dear. And several of the songs here could easily make great bluegrass songs (I can hear someone with a big, rich voice giving a classic country treatment to Two Doors Down, for instance). But this is not an album for listeners looking for straightforward bluegrass, traditional or progressive either one. If you’re looking for something a little different – or if you really like Dwight Yoakam – check it out.
For more information on Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…, visit www.dwightyoakam.com. The album is available from a number of popular music retailers.