Dwight Yoakam is a neo-classicist who's been so good for so long neither the prefix nor suffix are applicable any longer.
Sure, the Pikeville, Ky.-born, Los Angeles-based country singer in skinny jeans and hat sloped low over his brow dotted his 100-minute set at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City on Saturday with hits originally recorded by his forebears, from Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses" to Buck Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield."
But perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to the 56-year-old songwriter and sometime actor - who returned after a seven-year absence with last year's terrific Three Pears - is that his own precisely played honkytonk shuffles and twangy rockers are entirely of a piece with his chief inspirations. On Saturday, Red Simpson's "Close Up the Honky Tonks" didn't sound any more "classic" than "Take Hold of My Hand," written by Yoakam with Kid Rock.
Strumming his acoustic Gibson inlaid with mother of pearl, its fretboard decorated with a pair of dice, Yoakam fronted a versatile five-piece band that employed pedal steel here and tinkling piano there with clean, keen attention to detail.
Although he sings the word hurt in nearly every song, Yoakam doesn't go in for messy displays of emotion. As they meticulously incorporate influences from surf rock to British Invasion melodicism, his stylized country-noir songs luxuriate in sadness.
He's exquisitely wounded in his misery, like Raymond Chandler in a cowboy hat wishing you, to quote a 1988 album title, Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room. "I'm a thousand miles from nowhere," he sang, alone in the crowd on a Saturday night. "And there's no place I'd rather be."
At the Golden Nugget, Yoakam stretched out "Pocket Of A Clown," a finger-snapping countrypolitan weeper. Then he paused before going into the trippy title cut of his new album. "I don't know where I'm going," he said, pretending to be impetuous and unpredictable. "Never did!"
On the contrary, going back to his 1986 debut, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc., Yoakam has always known exactly where he is going, and what he is doing. He may be an unreliable narrator: "I tell the truth, except when I lie," he sang in "It Only Hurts Me When I Cry." But he remains comfortably in command with the et ceteras - "Hillbilly music" and "Lonely, lonely streets that I call home" - that, then as now, "are the only things that keep me hanging on."
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.