There's a reason Dwight Yoakam's recordings are the lone country albums in many a rocker's collection. For nearly twenty years, he's been the lone country artist making intelligent, rebellious twang that appeals to rock-and-roll sensibilities. He takes the dumb completely out of country, with music that bleeds the heart and stirs the brain and the feet. With Population Me, his string of beyond-reproach discs is still intact.
Population shows Yoakam sticking to his guns and his stick-to-your-ribs blend of vintage country, bluegrass and rock -- music free of the commercial trappings of his bigger-selling pseudo-peers in Nashville.
And while Music City could be Yoakam's most obvious target of complaint, he aims his pen at his home turf. "The Late Great Golden State" kicks off the disc with a galloping, banjo-enhanced tale of the demise of California and its country music. "As the canyons burned and the mountains crumbled," he sings, "the last cowboy band left the stage." Yoakam peppers this tumbleweed rocker -- complete with a winking chorus of female backing singers -- with a line that sums up his place in country music's culture: "I ain't old; I'm just out of date".
"No Such Thing" shows Yoakam and his superb band in fine Bakersfield form, shuffling through a rousing tribute to denying heartbreak. As he has since Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.,Etc., debut, guitarist/producer Pete Anderson spikes the tune with biting, farm-fresh guitar licks that counter the sweet steel guitar ringing behind him.
Yoakam heads for his Blue Ridge Mountain beginnings in "Fair to Midland," a relaxed, rolling lament that plays on the "How's your day?" qualifier of good country people. His cool, Elvis-in-a-mountain-stream singing is paired with another of his trademarks: brain-tickling song bridges. While the singer pines for a chance to correct a muffed chance at love, the song's interlude floats over unexpected combinations of chords and head-hanging melodies. They rise like sobs, then fall like tears into a release of understated mandolins and dobros. It's perfect mountain music, mature as good bourbon, bittersweet as straight sassafras tea.
The emotional load gets lightened in "An Exception to the Rule," a poppy, organ-nudged bit of sunshine that calls to mind "Last Train to Clarksville"-era Monkees. Population's title track is a quirky, ghost-town ode fleshed out with, of all things, trumpet and trombone. (Try to find such giddy combinations on any Nashville disc.)
"Trains and Boats and Planes" continues Yoakam's string of genius, reworked covers. (A list that includes hillbillied songs by the Clash and Cheap Trick.) Here he takes a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song back to Kentucky, converting the song into what sounds like an Appalachian chestnut that beats back the tears with fiddles, mandolins and blue optimism.
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Rounding things out is "If Teardrops Were Diamonds," a duet with another classic country singer (Willie Nelson), a half-naked, steel-guitar weeper elevated by Nelson's honeyed voice and trippy phrasing. It's followed by "I'd Avoid Me Too," which satisfies the hard honky-tonk jones.
Population Me winds down with "The Back of Your Hand," (penned by Greg Lee Henry), a song that hints at what makes Yoakam the finest country (or rock, for that matter) artist of the past three decades. He has the guts to end an A+ mix of cerebral, roots-rocking American music with a hushed, let's-pull-out-the-rug ballad. He's also got the sense to pull off the song -- one that that would be overproduced melodrama in more sales-minded hands -- by delivering it with just an acoustic guitar and a tasteful string section.
Since Yoakam landed on the musical map in 1986 -- all tight trousers and tighter tunes -- traditional country lovers have prayed his brand of music would rule country's airwaves. Clearly, that ain't gonna happen. But thanks to him, bystanders to the war get paybacks with every disc and musical satisfaction that mainstream rock and country seldom deliver.