Record Review - 2 September 18 2003

Expansive and expensive, multi-disc sets are usually released when an artists have died or passed their prime. Although last year's Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years box was a nifty retrospective of Dwight Yoakam's tenure on the titular record label, the new Population: Me shows this honky-tonk man is far from rolling down his last lost highway.

On Yoakam's debut indie release, the Kentucky-born, Nashville refugee's sound is as refreshing and nearly as revelatory as on his first album, 15 years ago. Yoakam combines his freewheeling influences — California country/rock predecessors the Eagles and Byrds — with a more traditional Bakersfield twang. The spirited, yet surprisingly commercial, country that results flaunts its roots while expanding on them.

The title track displays a Hank Williams sway, using banjo and dobro to add heartbroken bluegrass twang, then throwing in a muted trumpet to infuse big-band sass. "If Teardrops Were Diamonds" meshes his high-lonesome approach and duet partner Willie Nelson's Texas country & western inflection.

With dozens of top charting singles, Yoakam's defection to independence seems an admission that, as he nudges 50, his brand of genre-pushing, roots-respecting country is better served without corporate suits fishing for a hit. Not content to exploit his hip-swiveling, torn jean image, he also refuses to compromise his musical credibility.

Hopefully, this gamble will pay off, since Population: Me is one of Yoakam's best — and at barely one half-hour, one of his shortest — albums. If the results continue to be this impressive, look for a second box set in 14 years.

Dwight Yoakam plays Cowboys Dance Hall Fri., Sept. 26. $20-$40.??