Billy plays Haggard.Drag City Records, 2017
Purchase: Drag City Records
6.5 / 10
Context is everything. Best Troubador is a covers album, giving tribute to Merle Haggard, one of the best, strongest authorial voices in country music. That Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham) would have somewhat of a minor obsession with Haggard is not that surprising. BPB’s old-time sensibilities mesh well with Haggard’s now traditional music. Also, both songwriters have wrestled with where the line of earnest and self-aware begins and ends. Best Troubador is an album full of good songs, but I repeat, context is everything.
If this were an original album, 16-tracks worth of Oldham-composed work, it would be a surprising, sweet, sentimental record. In light of the context, it’s Haggard through a filter of a (later-era) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. It’s not quite Merle Haggard karaoke, but many of these songs are close enough that such comparisons aren’t unwarranted. Best Troubador shaves away some of the shagginess of Haggard’s work, and with it, much of the blues and emotion in the original songs. These tracks don’t feel like classics anymore, and instead, they’re clean-cut new folk songs.
If you can’t tell by the tone of this review, Best Troubador isn’t thrilling. It’s an excellent curation of Merle Haggard’s music, but it does little to recontextualize a master’s work. The upside is that this may give Haggard a new audience. Are these songs good? Of course, they are. Are they better — or even more interesting — than the original? Nope.
“I Always Get Lucky With You”
“I Am What I Am”