Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: Best Troubador
Drag City/Palace Records/Domino – 5 May 2017
Merle Haggard died in April last year, leaving behind a back catalogue immense in both quality and quantity. But the 49 studio albums and 38 American country chart-topping singles don’t tell the full story. Haggard was a groundbreaker, one of country music’s first renegades. With the creation of what became known as the Bakersfield Sound he helped save the genre from itself, combatting Nashville schmalz with a much-needed blast of realism. He was also one of the finest songwriters of his era, and his talents transcended the sometimes narrow confines of the country and western scene.
While he may never have received much of the acclaim he deserved – at least not from the British music press – he has always always been a musician’s musician. Songwriters from Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan to David Berman and Bill Callahan all bear his influence, and now Callahan and Berman’s Drag City label-mate, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, has created the ultimate tribute, a lavish and lovingly crafted double album of songs written or made famous by Haggard.
The pair are a natural fit. Both have relished their outsider status, both have a penchant for self-mythologising. Fittingly, Oldham has approached the songs he has chosen for Best Troubador as important documents in the American oeuvre. There are few bells and whistles here, just lots of great tunes and some suitably dusty production. And that’s how it should be: for all his sonic invention Haggard was always more about the dirt road than the pristine recording studio. But what is surprising is the celebratory, at times joyous mood of the record. It was created in the wake of the deaths of two of Oldham’s biggest influences, Haggard himself and Leonard Cohen, and while those spectres hover noticeably on the fringes of the album, their influence is largely benign. Opener The Fugitive revels in its nihilism but does so with Flying Burrito Brothers swagger and a blast of horns. I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall is the classic country singer’s hard luck story, delivered with gentle resignation and a charm of flutes.
The Prince gives ample space to his bandmates and collaborators. Nuala Kennedy’s vocals are prominent throughout, and A. J. Roach gets a lead vocal slot on a wonderful, sad version of The Day The Rains Came Down. Haggard (Like I’ve Never Been Before) is the apex of that aforementioned self-mythologising, but Oldham does it with a light touch and a twinkle in his eye, the jazzy sax break absolutely nailing the mood. I Always Get Lucky With You is as deadpan as it gets, proof that this sort of thing was being done perfectly well long before Father John Misty came along.
Elsewhere, there is some deliciously finger-picked acoustic guitar on Leonard. Roses In The Winter – one of the strongest of Haggard’s many great songs – stands out for its minimalism, and Some Of Us Fly is an almost unbearably tender duet with Kennedy, who also brightens Wouldn’t That Be Something, a song that bubbles to life with the album’s most upbeat message. Nobody’s Darling is another sweet duet, this time with Mary Feiock sharing vocal duties. The record comes full circle with I Am What I Am, one of those quietly affirmative songs Haggard seemed able to turn out in his sleep and the Blaze Foley-penned If I Could Only Fly, so loose and lo-fi it sounds (perhaps with intentional irony) like it was recorded in a sealed wooden box.
Best Troubador had already been partially recorded when Haggard died, and, as Oldham himself put it, ‘boy, did that modify the intention of our efforts.’ In fact, he even thought of giving up on the project. If he had done so, we would be missing out on a timely reminder of the talents one of the most gifted of all the great American songwriters, delivered with grace and skill by a modern master.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has also released a new single this week: “Mama Tried” b / w “No Time To Cry”. No Time to Cry, a song written by Iris Dement featured on one of Merle’s lesser known albums, 1996. Watch the new video which features images taken during the live recording sessions for Best Troubador.
Out Now on Drag City Records / Domino Records
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