Dwight Yoakam's new album, "3 Pears," shows a softer side… (Randee St. Nicholas )
Dwight Yoakam's jeans had been pressed and his eyes moistened with Visine. But as the country star stood last month in a rented Malibu mansion — the hilltop set of a music video for Yoakam's song "A Heart Like Mine" — the director requested one more adjustment.
"Can you smile?" she asked.
"A little bit more?"
"How about a chuckle?"
"Nah," Yoakam finally replied, courteous but firm. "I don't like to indicate."
He never has. Since emerging more than 25 years ago from the rock clubs of Los Angeles — where he shared bills with X and Los Lobos — Yoakam has established himself as one of country music's foremost stoics, a straight-faced enigma (and perpetual Nashville outlier) hidden beneath a crisp cowboy hat.
In his songs he's always been unafraid to play the bad guy, and he's done it well enough to carve out a healthy sideline as an actor in films like "Sling Blade" and "Panic Room."
Yet that character begins to soften on Yoakam's new album, "3 Pears." The singer's first set of original songs since "Blame the Vain" in 2005, it opens with the Beatlesque "Take Hold of My Hand" ("And I'll do what I can to make everything right," the lyric continues), then moves into "Waterfall," which with its nonsense words and singsong melody sounds like it was conceived as a nursery rhyme: "If I had a jellyfish / I betcha we would never miss / A single peanut-butter kiss or squeeze."
Elsewhere Yoakam pledges his commitment to a lover in the tender "Trying," and even offers a warmly affectionate cover of "To Love Somebody" by the Bee Gees. Throughout "3 Pears" Yoakam reveals a vulnerability — a kind of openness to the world — that seems at odds with the cool customer he's perceived to be.
"I don't know if it's a vulnerability as much as a very personal space within each song," Yoakam said in an interview the day after the video shoot. He was sitting with his legs propped on a conference table at his West Hollywood office, and he regularly paused his thoughtful ruminations to admire the sunset taking place beyond the room's panoramic windows.
"There's a lot of personal expression," he went on. "And even in a song like 'Nothing but Love,' which discusses the negatives of interacting emotionally, it still comes back to a hope for happiness and joy."
Yoakam, who plays Riverside's Fox Performing Arts Center on Friday night, attributed that mind-set to several factors, among them a renewed interest in the music of John Lennon. The title of "3 Pears" nods to a scene from "Living in the Material World," Martin Scorsese's 2011 documentary about George Harrison, in which Lennon wears three pairs of sunglasses.
"I was thinking about what his greater intent was, in spite of his own lack of happiness," Yoakam said of the late Beatle. "To me Lennon teaches us the lesson that even in the moment of hurt there's love."
The singer pointed also to the inspiration provided by his young collaborators, including Ashley Monroe (of Miranda Lambert's Pistol Annies), Kid Rock and Beck, the latter of whom co-produced two of the album's strongest cuts, "A Heart Like Mine" and the pensive acoustic ballad "Missing Heart."
"He was running around the studio with this reckless teenage abandon," Yoakam recalled of Beck, whom he'd met several times over the last decade before reaching out to "idea-bounce" on "3 Pears." "And I thought, 'When you're 17, this is where fun is. There's no rules except the ones you're shattering.' "
Former Warner Bros. Records President Lenny Waronker, who's worked with Yoakam for years and served as the new album's executive producer, said the fresh blood reinvigorated the country star.
"He's got a harmonic brain that's up there with the best, and I never knew that," Waronker said. "He claims he's not a very good guitar player, but I'd take him over most [players] because of his ideas — the notes he chooses and the places he goes musically."
Once a month or so during the album's recording, Yoakam and Waronker would listen to tracks on the stereo in Yoakam's car. "And every time I'd hear something special, I'd ask him, 'Who's playing that?' " Waronker recalled. "He was very shy about it. But it was him."
True to form, Yoakam shrugged off a suggestion that "3 Pears" extends a legacy of creative ingenuity that's helped set the table for artists such as Beck.
"I'm not really ever thinking about that," he said in his office, his eyes shrouded by the dimming light. "I've always been just kind of consumed by own thoughts."
Where: Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $49-$99 plus service charge and taxes
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