[11 December 2013]
PopMatters Features Editor
Back in the late ‘80s Dwight Yoakam’s no-nonsense Bakersfield sound felt, to many of us, like the only thing on the country radio station that hadn’t been poured out of a spout at the end of some assembly line. Those were his essential years, when Yoakam seemed incapable of releasing a song that didn’t burn up the charts, that didn’t fill a void left there as drum machines and gloss overwhelmed the music. But, by the end of the ‘90s, it’s fair to say, Yoakam began to fade away. Not that the music he made was no longer as finely wrought as it had always been, but it was more that the Nashville scene had begun to diversify (if only by fits and starts) and Yoakam appeared to be less vital, less necessary as he had a decade earlier.
Despite the fact that few country music fans have anything less than a deep reverence for his work, he hasn’t had much traction on the charts over the past 15 years. That’s why this hits collection is kind of weird. Most of these songs really weren’t hits at all. Indeed, one of them – an iffy duet with Michelle Branch – was never even previously released. And all but one of rest of the tracks will be unfamiliar to even the most dedicated radio listener since they failed to make it too far past the 50 mark on the charts. The only bona fide hit song on this collection is Yoakam’s cover of Queen’s oddball rockabilly number “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, a song he first released in 1999, but which was re-released on a soundtrack in 2006 so it gets to sneak onto this collection. Sneaky.
All that aside, there’s no reason not to pick this one up if you’re looking for a tight compilation of recent music from one of the greats. There are few knockouts here, but no stinkers either. As a document of a transitional period in Yoakam’s lengthy career, it works well. My advice would be to simply pick up the full-length records he’s dropped since 2000 (since they’re all pretty good, and there are only four of them anyway, and his album of Buck Owens covers is simply essential listening), but for those looking for a concise one-stop-shop this fits that bill nicely.
The best songs here – “Blame the Vain”, “The Late Great Golden State”, and his terrific slow-tempo reading of Buck Owens’ classic “Close Up the Honky Tonks” – are borderline essential. If some of the rest isn’t going to set the world on fire (that duet with Branch on “Long Goodbye” is pretty ho hum, and “Just Passin’ Time” feels like it’s just fillin’ time, frankly), there are more than enough great tracks to make up for it. The duet with Willie Nelson on “If Teardrops Were Diamonds” is simply terrific, and “Heart Like Mine” (the only track pulled from last year’s underrated 3 Pears) is infectious fun.