Best Troubador is the best both Oldham and Haggard could ever hope to offer.
When Merle Haggard died in April of the icon-culling year that was 2016, he left a gaping void in country music landscape. One of the last remaining originators of the type of country music favored by those who prefer to apply the alt prefix, Haggard was a giant in his field. With countless hit singles, albums and writing credits to his name, Haggard, along with the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Johnny Cash and others helped establish the modern country outlaw personae and aesthetic, based as much in reality as in fictionalized accounts of relatable hopes, worries, joys and fears. Revered as much for their cultural contributions as their musical ones, these country elder statesmen have fallen in and out of favor over the years, yet remain undeniable powerful forces within the world of country music. And with all but Nelson having now passed – a sentiment that looms large over his excellent new album, God’s Problem Child – their presence has slipped into the past tense, reminders of a time now lost and gone forever.
Will Oldham, working again under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, offers a low-key, affectionately reverential treatment of the songs of Merle Haggard. Stripping them to their lyrical essence, Best Troubador helps further the case for Haggard’s deserved respect as an exceptional songwriter, regardless of the genre within which the artist may be operating. Playing as a collection of late-night, contemplative renditions of songs both well-known and obscure, Best Troubador finds Oldham applying his sad bastard Americana formula to songs that, in their original iteration, tended to rely on a driving rhythm to underscore the raw vulnerability inherent in the lyrics. With any semblance of the Bakersfield rhythmic propulsion having largely been expunged from these tracks, the focus rests solely on the lyrics and Oldham and company’s measured delivery.
And what a masterful delivery it is. Oldham’s voice is at once confident and vulnerable from note one of opening track “The Fugitive.” Operating with a fairly minimalistic backing group consisting of guitar, drums, bass and the occasional horns to add a flourish here and there, Oldham is front and center throughout. Largely recorded live, there is a loose, laidback feel to the proceedings. To be sure, this isn’t the result of a lackadaisical approach or disinterest in the material. Quite the contrary as each delicate performance proffers the utmost respect to both Haggard and his songs. “I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall” plays like acoustic chamber pop with a fine multi-part harmony running throughout.
Augmenting the traditional country instrumentation with saxophone and flute is a particularly nice touch, moving each from mere genre pastiche into something truly new and different while still retaining immediately identifiable elements. Often acting as a third or fourth harmony part, Drew Miller’s saxophone in particular cuts through the mix in a way that is at once individualistic and operating in service to the song. On “Haggard (Like I’ve Never Been Before),” he subtly underscores the basic melody while throwing in occasional embellishments and licks usually reserved for an electric guitar or fiddle. It’s a unique approach to country music that stays true to its traditionalist roots while look for new and different ways to explore this well-trod territory.
With his fairly low-key ‘10s output, Best Troubador remains in keeping with Oldham’s more subdued, even understated approach. Having shown himself a deft interpreter of the work of others on 2013’s sublime What the Brothers Sang, it comes as little surprise that his take on Haggard is equally successful. Where What the Brothers Sang relied on the Everly Brothers’ angelic harmonies (courtesy of Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy), Best Troubador allows Oldham to shine on his own, his voice perfectly suited to the inherent heartbreak coursing through each of these 16 tracks. His phrasing and the slightest hint of a country twang help further the illusion that these sessions were done by Nashville professionals sitting around after hours playing through a handful of their favorite Merle Haggard songs in the wake of his passing.
Yet given the strength of these performances – even on something as otherwise formulaic as “Leonard” – there’s no need to predicate any such analysis on the group members’ bona fides; these are no mere hacks hoping to cash in on the surplus of tributes released in the wake of 2016’s pop cultural carnage. In fact, Oldham points out in the album’s liner notes that the album and basic concept was actually in the works well before Haggard’s death. His death then only further solidified the group’s resolve and shifted the focus from mere covers album to a considered and true tribute to one of the greatest voices in country music.
Penultimate track “I Am What I Am” may well be the album’s crown jewel, its first person narrative alluding to Haggard’s back catalog in a way that, while self-referential, isn’t overly so, making it feel like the summation of a storied career. Delivered with the utmost reverence and a lush, slide guitar and fiddle aided bit of chamber pop, it’s a fine distillation of the best moments Best Troubador has to offer. And while they were certainly ahead from the start due to the strength of the source material, the effort put in to recasting these songs in his own image while still remaining true to each song’s roots is a testament to Oldham’s considerable talents and ability to tap into the purest of human emotions. Best Troubador is the best both Oldham and Haggard could ever hope to offer.