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POP : STRANGER IN THE WHITE HAT : It's Taken Country Music Awhile to Come to Terms With Straight-Shooting Rebel Dwight Yoakam

February 20, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Crafty image-making has played a part in Dwight Yoakam's career, but what's being sold has had a high degree of musical integrity.

Yoakam's album covers have a Calvin Klein allure to them. He always appears with white cowboy hat dipped low over his brow, his eyes set in a probing glance. It's a look that announces that this is no yee-haw country singer, but a man of mystery and remoteness, a silent stranger who might be dangerous.

Yoakam also has done his part in promoting the erotic potential of the human knee. He first turned up with jeans shredded strategically on the cover of his 1987 album, "Hillbilly Deluxe," and it became a trademark.

A thread of rebellion in Yoakam's career as a country musician ties in with the rebel imagery. Born in Kentucky, the grandson of a coal miner, Yoakam was steeped early on in classic country influences. But when he went knocking on doors in Nashville in the early '80s, trying to land a record deal, his sound and his songwriting were rejected as too traditional. In those days, country classicism wasn't in.

Yoakam moved to Los Angeles, kicked around the club scene and found himself playing bills with such supportive, roots-minded rockers as Los Lobos and the Blasters.

In 1984, he put out an independent label EP. By 1986, the songs from that record were incorporated in his major label debut, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc." The album was a hit, one of the harbingers of the back-to-tradition movement that became the strongest current in country music in the late '80s and so far in the '90s.

On three subsequent albums, "Hillbilly Deluxe," "Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room" and "If There Was a Way," Yoakam has not strayed from his sources--honky-tonk, bluegrass music, sometimes with a rocking edge ("Dangerous Man," from "If There Was a Way," is close to John Mellencamp heartland-rock).

As a songwriter, Yoakam has focused on the barrooms and heartbreaks of country tradition, but he has also drawn upon his family history, portraying the struggles, hard fate, and sustaining faith of the coal miner.

Yoakam has avoided the album-a-year and tour-till-you-drop routine of many country acts. He is working on songs for a fifth album; his round of acoustic shows in Southern California is not part of an extended tour.

Also on Yoakam's agenda are a slot on the Farm Aid bill in Irvine, Tex., on March 14, and a small part in "Red Rock West," a film starring Nicholas Cage and Dennis Hopper.

Pete Anderson, Yoakam's record producer and ace guitar player, won't be part of his band at the Coach House, but the singer shouldn't lack for expert help. Supporting him will be Scott Joss, Yoakam's regular fiddle and mandolin player, dobro player Al Perkins, on loan from Emmylou Harris' excellent Nash Ramblers band, and bassist James Intveld, a fine roots rocker who grew up in Garden Grove.

Who: Dwight Yoakam.

When: Tuesday, Feb. 25, and Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. (with additional dates Feb. 28 and 29 at 9 p.m.)

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

Wherewithal: $29.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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