A look back: Dwight Yoakam’s ‘If There Was A Way’ 20 years later

As we get older the years start flying by and we find ourselves looking back, thinking how long ago certain things were and sometimes it’s enough to blow your mind.  As I went to an old friend on the CD rack the other night I experienced something right in line with that phenomenon.  This old friend was Dwight Yoakam’s 4th official release If There Was A Way and it dawned on me that it was 20-years-old.  Twenty!  It seems like just a couple of years back I heard “You’re The One” on a friend’s truck radio and realized that I might like country music after all.

I’m going to begin with two brazen statements about this album.  Number one is that I believe it’s the finest in Dwight’s discography, and let me tell you brother, that’s a BIG deal.  Second, I would argue it’s the very best mainstream country record of the last 25 years.  When I say “mainstream,” I mean it contains songs that got played on the radio and cracked the Billboard charts, and If There Was A Way had a bunch of ’em! (The album itself peaked at number 7 on the country chart.)

Here is the track listing and American country chart positions courtesy of Billboard:

  1. 1. “The Distance Between You and Me”  (11)
  2. 2. “The Heart That You Own” (18)
  3. 3. “Takes a Lot to Rock You
  4. 4. “Nothing’s Changed Here” (15)
  5. 5. “Sad, Sad Music
  6. 6. “Since I Started Drinkin’ Again
  7. 7. “If There Was a Way
  8. 8. “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” (11)
  9. 9. “It Only Hurts When I Cry” (7)
  10. 10. “Send a Message to My Heart”  w/ Patty Loveless (47)
  11. 11. “I Don’t Need It Done
  12. 12. “You’re the One” (5)
  13. 13. “Dangerous Man
  14. 14. “Let’s Work Together

Hot darn look at that track listing!  If There Was A Way was that rarest confluence of pure artistic integrity and commercial viability.  Over in the pop world it is similar to U2’s game changer The Joshua Tree that came out just three short years before.  Each were their own monsters with radio coming to them and not vice versa.

It was with this release that Yoakam began to fully establish himself among the pantheon of all-time country greats.  Right alongside my bullish statement about this record I would argue that if you could only take one artist whose recording career began after 1980 and put them on the Mount Rushmore of country it would absolutely have to be Dwight.  He has been incredibly consistent with his releases which is extremely rare in his genre. He’s a songwriter, having penned many of his own best songs – including a majority of the tracks on If There Was A Way.  His music, especially his singing, is definitive and has a timeless quality.  You know when you’re listening to a DY album.

What really stands out after time about the record though, after TWENTY YEARS, is how it still feels as immediate and full of energy as the first time I heard it.  That definitive Pete Anderson riff that begins the album is like a hillbilly alarm clock.  Wake up!  There’s something right here you better take a listen to!  After that If There Was A Way introduces you to the whole of Dwight’s appeal.  There’s traditional country croonin’, there’s perfect phrase turns and edgy Don Rich flavored guitar riffs, there’s psychobilly attitude as Dwight says, and most importantly there is one great song after another.

I’m now a huge country music fan and I started to pay attention to it because of this record. Although it would be a few more years until I started finding out about all the honky tonk heroes that came before, including Dwight’s favorite Buck Owens, it was this album that made it all right in my mind to go down that path.   If If There Was A Way wasn’t blaring on my buddy’s 4-wheel-drive Toyota I may never have discovered so much of my favorite music.  That’s a fact.

Twenty years have gone by but there ain’t a speck of hillbilly dust on If There Was A Way and I have no doubt this album, or CD, or download or whatever is going to have the same potency when my grandchild comes over and asks me to play him some old-timey music.

If you’re interested in getting yourself a copy of If There Was A Way you can pick it up via Amazon here.  As always, you can keep up to date with all things Dwight via his official website.  I’ll leave you with my all-time favorite Yoakam song “The Heart That You Own” in a live clip from 2008.

Top Image: (L) – Juan Rico/FamePictures (R) – Amazon.com