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 latter is the inspiration for Will Oldham's latest collection under the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy moniker. "He is not the original," says Oldham, citing Jimmie Rodgers and Floyd Tillman among Haggard's influences whose legacy can still be heard in 21st century country music, "but he may be the most significant junction." Best Troubador, we may surmise, is designed as a similar channel of those roots, with 16 covers that span the length and breadth of Haggard's career before his death in 2016, helped by a variety of BPB collaborators old and new. The results certainly carry their own warmth.
Opening track The Fugitive suggests that Haggard's involvement with outlaw country may cast the widest shadow over the record, with Oldham taking audible delight in the line, 'I'm on the run, the highway is my home'. The scope is swiftly revealed to be much wider, however; before long we're investigating lovelorn, nostalgic balladry (The Day the Rains Came), romantic optimism (Roses in the Winter) and fatalistic acceptance of flaws (Some of us Fly). Haggard may be celebrated for his much-debated conservative celebration/satire Okie From Muskogee and boozing anthems like The Bottle Let Me Down (both absent here, incidentally), but it's nice to be reminded that these were far from the only aspects of his songwriting.
There's a mischievous glee in a version of Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before), too; originally a wryly-titled ode to feeling old and tired while out on the road, here Oldham uses the hookline ('I'm haggard') as a nod to the performative aspect of the cover version itself – a role-playing exercise, of a sort. The most spectacular fireworks are found on Leonard, however; a summary of the life and career of Bakersfield sound pioneer Tommy Collins, told succinctly and powerfully across nine dynamite verses. Few genres allow for the art of storytelling in quite the same way as country and western, and this song simply drives home how masterful a storyteller Haggard could be when he was in the mood.
It's difficult not to wonder what Haggard himself would have made of all this, of course. Best Troubador's ornate production, replete with tastefully-arranged strings and brass, often comes across as chintzy at best and twee at worst (That's the Way Love Goes, especially, struggles to shake off a certain naffness), while Oldham's ever-reedy mumble lacks the hardened richness of his hero. Perhaps inevitably – and you suspect Oldham would freely admit as much – none of the cover versions found here match up to the originals, although the heart-melting charm of Wouldn't That Be Something and Some of us Fly comes across as pure Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.
Overall, that's probably the best way to think of this record. It's not an attempt to redefine or recontextualise Haggard's songs; much of the album remains true (or close enough) to the original arrangements, and you get a real sense that Oldham's singing these songs simply because he loves them and thinks other people should too. While that doesn't make for essential listening, it undoubtedly makes for an enjoyable and almost comforting experience: these songs have been given new life, and the best we can do in return is to pay some overdue attention to the talents of their author. A significant junction indeed.
Listen to: Leonard, Some Of Us Fly
Buy Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Best Troubador on Double LP/CD from Norman Records