There's a reason Dwight Yoakam's recordings are the lone country albums in many a rocker's collection. For nearly 20 years, he's taken the dumb 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 remains intact. Population is free of the commercial trappings of his bigger-selling pseudopeers 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."
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 covers that includes hillbillied songs by the Clash and Cheap Trick. Here, he converts a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song into what sounds like an Appalachian chestnut that beats back the tears with fiddles, mandolins, and blue optimism. Then there's "If Teardrops Were Diamonds," a duet with another classic country singer, Willie Nelson, that's a half-naked steel-guitar weeper elevated by Nelson's honeyed voice and trippy phrasing.