The heavyweight bass notes that open Dwight Yoakam's "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose," the first cut from Last Chance for a Thousand Years, a collection of the artist's hits from the '90s, serve as signifiers of the hard-edged rockabilly to follow, where Buck Owens plays eternally on the jukebox and honky-tonks function as emotional-recovery wards. Yoakam has been working in the so-old-it's-new category throughout his career, exploring the richest and most vital resources of country music. He wears various styles as deftly as he fits into a Nudie suit, shifting from Owens' Bakersfield twang to Marty Robbins' melodic balladry to Owen Bradley's lush orchestration to Elvis' mix of heartache and scorn.
Yoakam is more than an amalgamation of styles, though. He enjoys experimentation, which alone makes him stand out in a genre that is prone to conservatism, and most acutely in this time of Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Sawyer Brown, etc. crossover-pop irrelevance. Yoakam distinguishes himself for the rare quality of his voice, which shifts from a high-range plaintive cry to a cruel, sexy, low-register moan. He's also one of the best songwriters currently working in any genre, creating songs that sound like standards the first time you hear them (on this disc, those include "You're the One," "Pocket of a Clown" and "The Heart That You Own": "I pay rent on a rundown place/There ain't no view but there's lots of space/in my heart/the heart that you own.") When he collaborates, he works with the best, such as Rodney Crowell on "Thinking About Leaving" and the late Roger Miller, who obviously came up with the gem "I tell the truth 'cept when I lie" on "It Only Hurts When I Cry."
Yoakam's music is further distinguished by the omnipresence of lead guitarist and producer Pete Anderson. Anderson has produced all of Yoakam's recordings, and his guitar phrasings are part of what drives such hits as "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere" and Yoakam's bold rendition of the Elvis classic "Suspicious Minds."
Greatest-hits compilations allow such evaluations of an artist's work, and ones as remarkable as Last Chance for a Thousand Years allow lots of thoughtless pleasure as well. Many of these songs appear on Dwight Live, one of the most exhilarating live recordings ever made, but the studio versions have their own idiosyncratic charm. Here is Yoakam with his enigmatic badass-hillbilly persona most fully composed, crying about a broken heart while wickedly taking pleasure in fortune's turn ("You're the one/that made me blue/So how's it feel/now that you're the one/it's happened to?"). Yoakam's nasty side might be off-putting if he weren't so sexy at it. Waiting for him to growl "aw suckee" on "Fast as You" on its own makes it worth taking this Last Chance.