He's a brat.

He's a hoodlum, a rebel and he's burned everyone in the country music business from top executives to the listener on the street.But for my money, he's the finest country singer working.

Dwight Yoakam's back after a year's rest. And he's back with a CD that's bound to raise eyebrows and perk up a few ears, too: "If There Was a Way."

Yes, the title cut is full of bad grammar. But when you can caterwaul like Yoakam, you don't need to sweat the subjunctive case.

Yoakam's first album, "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc." went platinum. His two follow-ups, "Hillbilly Deluxe" and "Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room," almost got to platinum. This latest effort will likely join them near the top.

A glimpse at the album credits shows Yoakam hasn't whiled away all his time this past year. He's spent a good deal of it writing songs. And, as one might expect, his efforts range from superb to flat-out mediocre.

In short, "If There Was a Way" has material that spikes above, and below, material on his other releases.

On the high side, we have a duet with Patty Loveless called "Send a Message to My Heart" that may make a hit single. Tight, energetic, it has the earmarks of an old Buck Owens shuffle tune.

Roger Miller helped Yoakam write "It Only Hurts When I Cry." The Miller signature is everywhere here, from the harmonies to the spin on the lyrics. Only the man who gave us the line "My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died" could come up with a verse like:

The only time I feel the pain

Is in the sunshine or the rain

And I don't feel no hurt at all

Unless you count when teardrops fall;

I tell the truth 'cept when I lie

And it only hurts me when I cry.

The song also has a nice echo effect on the chorus that's meant to give a hint of Elvis. If the Loveless duet isn't Yoakam's next single, this one likely will be.

"The Heart That You Own" is a good, hardcore grieving song penned by the singer, and "I Don't Need It Done" is in the nasty, raunchy mode of tunes that show up on jukeboxes but seldom on radio stations.

Other songs are overproduced, however. Strings - both real and synthesized - muck up several cuts. Unlike Kenny Rogers, Yoakam doesn't need to rely on a mix board to generate appeal, he can do it himself on straight-ahead honky-tonk numbers.

In the end, be glad the brat's back. He's good.

But cross your fingers he doesn't wig out and start thinking he's Sinatra.