Release Date: May 5, 2017
Record label: Drag City
On first listen, I was frustrated that Will Oldham took over Merle Haggard's tunes without attempting his trademark voice. But if we think of this album as an example of the respect that Oldham has for the Hag, part of that respect becomes matching forms and matching dialogue. Part of the formal skill of both Haggard and Oldham is a care to note where the artifice of performance begins, and where persona becomes personhood. This tension between persona and personhood can be seen in choosing genuinely moving, intimate story-songs over the greatest hits.
This album however is something of a conversation with a more looming, iconic figure - the recently deceased country legend Merle Haggard. While ostensibly a straight-up 16 track covers record this plays out more like a collaborative effort with Oldham playing both roles, sometimes handing off to female vocalists like Mary Feiock to add splashes of much-needed colour. A fair barometer to use for Best Troubadour is the aforementioned The Brave and the Bold, which tackled classics like Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and Richard Thompson's "The Calvary Cross" to some effect, but without much in the way of theme or consistency - it was essentially a bunch of songs Oldham and the Tortoise team enjoyed and threw together pretty damn well.
W ill Oldham's covers of the Everly Brothers, Bill Withers and even R Kelly are some of the most satisfying curios in his massive catalogue, and he continues here with an album of songs by the late Merle Haggard. Oldham's reaffirmation of country as a spartan, romantic, existentially troubled music is a trick he perhaps learned from Haggard himself, but he strays further still from country's core sound, replacing the pedal steel and banjo with flutes, saxophones and acoustic guitar. By doing this, and choosing deep cuts rather than hits like Okie From Muskegee, he universalises a music that is still overlooked by many listeners, and in some cases arguably improves it - Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before) gives some swing to the stodgy honky-tonk of the original.
Will Oldham is a superior songwriter and vocalist when he wants to be, but there's just enough of a willful persona to his work as Bonnie "Prince" Billy and within the Palace rubric that it's hard to tell when he's being serious and when he's pulling his audience's collective leg, even when his work is good. One of the things that makes Best Troubador something truly special is that, more than nearly all of Oldham's work to date, he's playing straight throughout, and for a good reason. The misspelled but sincere honorific of the title refers to Merle Haggard; according to the liner notes, this album was in the works before Hag's death in April 2016, but when the great man passed, Oldham and his collaborators refashioned it into a tribute album devoted to songs Haggard wrote or sang.
While non-US-based fans looking to track down any of Will Oldham's recent self-penned material will have a tough time laying their hands on the tapes he's been selling at recent shows, Bold Troubador sees him continue to use his more widely available releases (see albums covering the Everlys and The Mekons) to showcase his considerable abilities as an interpreter of song. Here he turns his attention to Merle Haggard's repertoire to deliver a set that demonstrates not only a deep, respectful knowledge of the songwriter's work, but an empathetic kinship with the country singer. The Fugitive - a canny choice given its place in solidifying Haggard's outlaw rep - opens things and proves to be a good indicator of what's to come, Oldham's pastoral, unfussy arrangements serving the song and adding a bittersweet tinge of regret missing from Haggard's tough-stuff version.
Though his deep catalogue is as strange and bottomless as the American songbook that inspired him, Will Oldham has been more reflective in recent years. Following the release of 2011's austere Wolfroy Goes to Town , he's assumed the most old-school responsibilities of folk musicians: collaborating with friends , reimagining old songs , and quietly releasing new music . Best Troubador , his new 2xLP tribute to Merle Haggard , is not his first covers album.
Will Oldham is not a man to sit back and take things easy. Since adopting the Bonnie "Prince" Billy name in 1998 (and before that under a different guise), he's been churning out music at a prodigious rate. Churn isn't really a fair description for work shifting somewhere around acoustic, post punk, folksy, and countrified soul baring. Much of it has been very good too.
If the Americana boom of the mid-to-late 2000s can be traced back to anything, it's arguably the death of Johnny Cash in 2003. There was something about the Man in Black's bass-baritone voice, his way with a tale and his infamous rock'n'roll exploits that lent themselves neatly to wider pop mythology, particularly when aligned with the magic dust of the his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings LPs. Still, it felt like some of his compatriots were left behind in the wake of Cash's criticical and commercial revival - fellow Highwaymen Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, for instance, but even more particularly, Merle Haggard.
The "alt-country" tag is a designation often applied to Will Oldham's music, and yet the Louisville singer-songwriter rarely makes music that sounds like any known country artist. His plaintive, lightly bleating tenor is odder and more finicky than even the strangest novelty artists of the genre proper; his wayward songwriting feels more indebted to eccentrics on the outskirts of the genre, like hippie-folk auteur Michael Hurley or, at his most poker-faced, Townes Van Zandt. Oldham’s albums, like his delivery, are erratic and pleasantly precarious–at odds with the brazenness and control which defines so much of the greatest country music.