A Fresh Take On Deep Classic Cuts
The long list of releases from Bonnie “Prince” Billy has spanned across decades and genres, cementing singer-songwriter Will Oldham as a true strength in modern Americana. But instead of putting out a collection of his own work, his latest album Best Troubador tackles the catalog of the late Merle Haggard. As a tribute album, it crosses the depth of Haggard’s work, from his despondent feelings, his outlaw livin’ and his lovesick heart — but as a new release of folk and country, it shows the best of what modern musicians can do with traditional templates.
Songs feature twangy machinations of the outlaw life that gave Haggard his gritty reputation, including album opener “The Fugitive.” It’s a pretty traditional take but with a great full band sound, one that continues throughout the album with saxophones, flutes and keys to accent the traditional-style country strumming one would except from a country tribute (it also takes no time for Oldham to let his drawl fly.)
With so much talent in the room, there’s plenty to work with here for newbies to Haggard’s material, just as much as there is for established fans to enjoy newer takes on his work that may have come past his heyday — Oldham told Rolling Stone he has a deep appreciation for songs from Haggard’s later career. Record label Drag City put it another way: “If we could fly through the songbook of ol’ Hag, we could come up with a thousand different ways to go down the mighty road he walked in his long life making records. But none would be as sweet and stalwart as ol’ Bonny’s.”
The first true ballad, “I Always Get Lucky With You,” plays around with double entendre without much shyness, though Oldham’s voice is accentuated by high and bright feminine harmonies. It’s a delicate touch and a lovely song that hearkens back to Haggard’s softer side. Another of the standout ballads, “Roses in the Winter,” features a choral-like chorus with light accompaniment and a dirge-paced rhythm for one of the most memorable moments on the album. It’s a quiet, patient performance that accents what is soft and sad about Haggard’s work while maintaining that heartwarming hope that good country music can always be counted on to deliver.
“Some of us Fly” is another great example of that despair–hope continuum that legends like Haggard seemed to nail, and Oldham and company deliver the classic with a subtle hand. The emotion and meaning that run through this album are strong currents, but with fairly light-handed percussion, plenty of harmonies and an emphasis on guitar technique, it comes off in a balanced fashion. As classic as these songs are, Best Troubador is largely digestible and inoffensive, suitable for accompanying a bustling afternoon of chores or work or for winding down at night.
Even when things get twangy, like on “Wouldn’t That Be Something” and “Pray,” the arrangements use banjos, fiddles and even horns to their advantage. It’s a fresh and full sound, one that feels polished in a studio of experts who put real thought into how they would put these songs out for new consumption. There are a couple truly raw moments, including the too-brief “What I Hate (Excerpt)” and album closer “If I Could Only Fly.” Oldham’s soulful voice and jangly strings shine in a lo-fi setting free of studio polish, which feels like a suitable homage to the aesthetic in which Haggard found his footing.
Oldham is not trying to reinvent the wheel here. But he is paying homage to a legend through his own voice and style, providing substance to his own catalog while affirming that his musicianship is indeed the kind that can be as timeless as the country greats like Haggard that likely inspired him along the way.