Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Best Troubador”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Best Troubador
DRAG CITY
7/10

In the long, curvy road that’s seen him sonically explore sounds from Kentucky to Nevada, it should be little surprise that at some point, Will Oldham’s career would make a pitstop in Bakersfield. If there’s anyone who can tackle the catalog of Merle Haggard in carefully nuanced manner, it’s the man known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Throughout his career, Oldham has admired Haggard from close and afar—including a lauded interview in FILTER, this publication’s predecessor. Unlike many other musicians to put together full-length cover collections for single artists, the singer/songwriter didn’t tackle the reliable well-known standards for Best Troubador; while “Mama Tried” makes a digital-only appearance to promote the album, there is no “Okie from Muskogee,” no “Fightin’ Side of Me,” not even “Ramblin’ Fever,” which Oldham previously covered on Funtown Comedown. Instead, Oldham stuck to the songs that have resonated with him on a personal level. For someone who recorded at a pace as prolific as Haggard—he released forty-seven solo albums in total before passing last year—it would have been easy to get bogged down composing dense new tracks. But for someone as grizzled as Oldham, taking an exhaustive, deep dive into a seemingly endless catalog proved to be thoughtful and engaging.

While his interpretations don’t stray too far from the originals, Oldham and his terrific supporting cast’s distinct blend of rootsy Americana-meets–indie folk are refreshing. Wistful harmonies and delicate strings, along with Oldham’s own vocals, are strong throughout, adding energy and a dose of unexpectedness. As the songs glide from era to era (ranging from 1967’s I’m a Lonesome Fugitive to 2011’s Working in Tennessee), it’s easy to be whisked away within the delicate and deeper beauty.

Spreading the vocal responsibilities around, Oldham enlisted the likes of AJ Roach, Mary Feiock, and Oscar Parsons to assist and take over lead on some tracks. Each of their voices lends a different tenor and tone to an album full of exploration. All, however, have the same tactfulness and respect for both Oldham and Haggard’s vision; you wouldn’t track mud onto a friend’s newly tiled floors.

It’s never easy to give your heroes their due, but on Best Troubador, Will Oldham does his best. By being carefully introspective and understated, he and his bandmates allow for lesser-known songs from across the Haggard catalog to find new life. Instead of being a solemn farewell to a dearly departed friend, this is a moving tribute to a body of work few would dare tackle on their own. Somewhere, Haggard is flashing a leathery grin.

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