Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Best Troubador

[Drag City; 2017]

Styles: bluegrass, rhythm and blues, sax-a-ma-phone
Others: Waylon Jennings, Scout Niblett, Karl Blau

Will Oldham, known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, brings a bluegrass band together to cover a collection of songs by the late outlaw country legend Merle Haggard, who died in 2016. Oldham’s voice, wherever it goes, brings a playful spirit with it, dealing with the dullness of a lifelong ache (“New Partner”) or with feelings more blunt and searing (“Kiss,” with Scout Niblett). On this new album, Best Troubador, Oldham imbues Haggard’s often cool songs with an unalienable warmth, whether in the slight whistles on the “s” at the ends of words or in the crack of his voice as he climbs a phrase.

In its nods to 1960s outlaw country, Best Troubador refers also to a recently emergent interest in that tradition, most notably, indie musician Karl Blau’s 2016 release Introducing Karl Blau. There, Blau reworked tunes by a range of lesser-loved country stars like Townes van Zandt and Tom T. Hall. Just as Blau lovingly regarded those renditions, Oldham too adores the tunes he covers all the way down — just enough to tease them. Blau somehow made Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” appealing, and so does Oldham endear us to the hangdog appeal of Haggard’s lines: “Losing wouldn’t be so bad at all/ But I’m always on a mountain when I fall,” he sings on “Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” a punchy, smartass romp. Elsewhere on Best Troubador, songs like “Haggard Like I’ve Never Been Before” further develop the perpetual failure of a persona so characteristic of not only Haggard, but also outlaw country past and present.

Of course, Haggard was his own man. As Tim Barker has written in his memorial essay about the legend, “everything about Merle Haggard was confusing.” As ironic, at times, as Bob Dylan but with considerably less hip credibility today, Haggard confounds critics who try to place his various conservatisms and strong-willed insights in a broader cultural context. As Barker writes, “[I]f it’s easy to imagine Merle Haggard finding kind words for Trump, it’s not hard to imagine alternative and contradictory scenarios. Among his usual posts about marijuana and Bernie Sanders, Killer Mike tweeted [on the day Haggard died]: ‘RIP Merle Haggard #OutLawCountry.’” Given the contradictions at the core of Haggard’s life, Oldham is then perhaps a fitting emulator, with his own public face often rebuking easy answers, meaning, or successes. Although widely beloved among listeners, as he recently put it, “I’ve never had a hit song and I never will.”

On Best Troubador, Oldham’s band is loyal, loose, and loving in their historical reenactment of Haggard’s songs. In ways both large and small, their versions keenly emulate the styles of the originals, from the temporal proportions of the solos right on down to the swing of the drums. The magic, in all these songs’ forms, seems to reside inside the corners, in turnarounds, where worlds of meaning unfold in just one or two bars, changes of direction where bridge collides with chorus, refrain with solo, bridge with verse. Some of the slower tunes (“My Old Pal,” “Pray”) drag a bit, to my taste, but you can always skip them. True to bluegrass etiquette, solos are often passed around the room, and vocal duets reference country’s dance-centered past, as when vocalist Mary Feiock joins Oldham on “Nobody’s Darlin’” in a manner that recalls, say, Emmylou Harris when paired together with Johnny Cash or with Ricky Skaggs.

A key difference in these covers is their instrumentation, particularly the saxophone lines by Drew Miller. In Haggard’s original catalogue, saxophone does indeed appear from time to time, on “It’s All in the Movies” or “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” (In most early rock & roll groups, guitarists secretly wished that they wore saxophones, imitating the style of horn solos in dance bands.) On Best Troubador, the saxophone is not mere decoration, though; it shines on every take. We’re lucky every time we hear it, but nowhere more so than on “Some of Us Fly,” where its solo is the nicest 20 seconds of music made this year. Miller’s reedy blue notes refer less to the honky tonk of Don Markham (one of Haggard’s sax players) than to the classic mellow of Lester Young — a legend in his own right — had the man witnessed post-punk, the Gulf War, and whatever we’re living now.

Like all good covers, Oldham’s draw our attention to the raw material of the originals, which we might have otherwise missed: Haggard’s songs are made out of coarse language that is beautifully free from metaphor, grounded instead in the hardier affects: wishing you liked the way you make your living, reliance on luck and mercy, and constant running from trouble. “I keep two strikes against me/ Most of the time/A nd when it’s down to a phone call/ I’m minus a dime,” goes the representative “I Always Get Lucky With You,” which the band does real nice on Best Troubador.

The highlight, though, is a tune that arrives as a genuine surprise: “Wouldn’t That Be Something.” Although not one of Haggard’s more well-known tunes, this wondrous version makes us wonder why that is, exactly. The cover reveals a rare moment of utopian fantasy in Haggard’s narratives, in which the protagonist envisions a rocket flight together with a former love:

Wouldn’t that be something
If I spread my wings and showed you I could fly away
Wouldn’t that be something
If I asked you to fly with me on some wild and windy day
Wouldn’t that be something, if we both fell together,
and you threw your arms around me like you needed me,
Wouldn’t that be something, hey, wouldn’t that be something?

You’d probably laugh if you could see the dream I had last night
You and I together on a maiden rocket flight.
You were seated there beside me with that happy frightened look
You and I got young again on that rocket flight we took!

Wouldn’t that be something if you look at me and see somebody great again
Wouldn’t that be something if you could sing to me,
‘Today I started loving you again,’
Wouldn’t that be something,
If we could look inside each other’s mind and always find each other when we needed to,
Wouldn’t that be something?

In the outro, the instruments dance together in an adorable jubilee. At no moment on the album does Oldham’s voice seem to blend so perfectly with Haggard’s own; in listening back to Haggard’s original, I swear he somehow picked something up from Oldham, in reverse. The fact that Best Troubador manages to outright milk unqualified whimsy from the life and music of one of country’s most rugged, ambivalent heroes — well, it’s really something.

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