Best Troubador by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Release date: May 5, 2017
Label: Domino Records

As a long-time fan of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, it does my heart, not to mention my ears, the power of good when he plays it straight. Best Troubador is a Merle Haggard covers album and is Will Oldham’s straightest album, in terms of arrangements and songs, in a long while. Choosing his personal favourites from his hero’s extensive career, Oldham positioned himself in the middle of some tremendous musicians and the album was recorded at home, instead of the original plan to make the album in Nashville. Apparently Will wanted to record a Haggard covers album for some time and when Merle sadly passed away in 2016, it almost curbed the recording.

I feel the need to mention the folks who helped Oldham make this album as their playing throughout is exceptional. A fair few of the tracks are duets, or three-way excursions and the guest vocalists all add extra hues to a very colourful album. So take a bow, the Bonafide United Musicians: Van Campbell, Nuala Kennedy, Danny Kiley, Drew Miller, Cheyenne Mize and Chris Rodahoffer, with special guests Mary Feiock, Emmett Kelly, A.J Roach and Matt Sweeney, who of course has worked with Oldham before.

As I mentioned already, it is a joyful thing to hear Oldham present us with an album that is as listenable as Best Troubador. His album with the Bitchin’ Bajas was such an awkward oddity, when you are possessed of the wondrous honeyed tones that Will has, it’s only right to have songs to match. I must admit to having absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of Merle Haggard, only going as far as to say I had heard of him.

Best Troubador is comprised mostly of country ballads, interspersed with a few more up-tempo tracks. Opener ‘The Fugitive’ tells a good yarn over a jazz inflected jaunt with sassy little intrusions of sax and violins. The lazy stroll of ‘Haggard (Like I’ve Never Been Before)’ also adds a little jazz to proceedings. With ‘Leonard’, the character whose story is told sounds like some craic, again the instrumentation is an upbeat ditty with dazzling flutes. Those flickering flutes also make an appearance on ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’.

It’s the ballads that fair best though on this lovingly crafted collection. The first of these is the marvellous ‘The Day the Rains Came’, a three-way vocal excursion into real yee-haw territories. In the vein of classic Emmylou/Gram, there’s some lovely swerving instrumentation to match the superb singing. Tracks like ‘My Old Pal’ and the minimalist ‘Roses in the Winter’ bring some gorgeous swoon and slide guitar. The choir of voices at the end of the latter is heavenly. Album highlight ‘Nobody’s Darling’ is a tragic song with heart-breaking sentiments and promises of departing souls being “nobody’s darling but mine”.

As ever, the lure of some exquisite fiddle/violin playing gets me excited and the solos on ‘I Always Get Lucky with You’ and ‘Some of Us Fly’ are truly delightful. I’m also partial to a little banjo and on ‘Pray’, there’s some minimal pluckin’ which sounds like a chicken cluckin’. The urge to play it straight for a whole album must have been too much for Oldham. On ‘If I Could Only Fly’ he reminds us that “sometimes I write happy songs, but something goes a little wrong”. The track is a lo-fi acoustic recording that sounds like it was recorded in a barn, which it probably was.

You know I dithered over whether or not to review this album. My patience has worn scandalously thin with Bonnie “Prince” Billy after numerous releases where the quality dipped more than peaked. He always manages to give you something good, but consistency across an entire album has proved difficult. Even though Best Troubador is an album of covers, the performances from everyone involved makes it one of Oldham’s best albums. As an introduction to Haggard’s work, it serves as a very fine, satisfactory and persuasive collection.

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