Caught by the River

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: Best Troubador

Tim Tooher | 7th May 2017

Photo: Jessica Fey/Courtesy of the artist

Best Troubador, a collection of Merle Haggard songs as reimagined by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is out now and streaming via NPR. Tim Tooher reviews:

Merle Haggard was country music. I don’t mean that in the sense that there are or have been no other artists of his stature in country, but in the sense that he seemed to be made of country music, as if the essential nature of the music itself somehow managed to take form in his flesh. He was a student of both its history and its heart. Not only did he have an enormous influence on the country singers, players and writers who came after him, but his touch also extended beyond the traditional Nashville and Bakersfield confines. Most notably, in the form of the Byrds, Gram Parsons and Keith Richards, but away from country music, his songs have also been sung by artists as seemingly unlikely as Lemmy and The Fall.

And now, we have Best Troubadour, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s tribute to Merle and his music. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s music has always had the mark of country music on it, and his songs are similarly imbued with the same storytelling spirit. Vocally, though Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy may not sound like he learnt to sing by listening to the records of Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell, there’s still a hurt and vulnerability to his voice just as there is to Merle’s. And there’s no doubting the love with which he sings these fifteen (and a bit) songs.

Country music is often in thrall to its past. Which is both good and bad. It can mean that it doesn’t always move forward, but then again, why should it? Country is a folk music, the musical expression of the voice and heart of a people, and its dominant themes are, very broadly, love and loss, and while musical styles may change, the way that we feel love and loss does not. A few years ago Bonnie “Prince” Billy worked with Cheyenne Mize, one of his collaborators here, to record an EP of American parlour songs, including “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster. All of those songs have at least half a century on the oldest of these Merle Haggard songs, but they matter as much because time cannot dilute their emotional truth.

The same is true of the songs chosen here. They stand outside time. If a writer can successfully mine the deep seam of human emotion to speak truthfully and find the right combination of music and words, their songs become part of the emotional fabric of our lives and of the lives of those who come after us. Merle Haggard wrote songs like that for fun.

“I Always Get Lucky With You” was first recorded in 1981, but it wouldn’t have sounded out of place fifty years earlier and it doesn’t sound out of place today. It has a plaintive melody that wraps itself around you, while its words tell of how the pain of life’s disappointments is made bearable by love. It’s one the most beautiful songs I know. While not too far from Merle’s, the version here is, if anything, even more vulnerable, highlighting just what a delicate writer Merle could be. Oldham’s voice cracks as he sings the chorus, leaving us with a sense of a life that’s only a broken heart away from failure. Merle’s version is more comfortable, it feels safer – though maybe not by much.

It’s the vulnerability of many of Merle’s songs that makes them a natural fit for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Nowhere is that clearer than on “Some of us Fly”, which I think might be even better than Merle’s 2005 original. It tells of a fate that awaits us all, leaving it to our imagination what that fate is. Maybe failure, maybe death. Whatever it is, this is a magical, time-stopping five minutes. Nuala Kennedy’s voice is heart wrenchingly beautiful, a balm upon the wound of life. Another song here that deals with the idea of luck and fate is “That’s The Way Love Goes”. All three are stories that tell of people at the mercy of the fates, a theme far older than the words used to write them. In telling them again, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy sends them on in their journey, finding new listeners to give them new meaning.

The tribute album, a reimagining of a selection of another artist’s work, is one of my favourite things about country music, but maybe even better is the tribute song. “Leonard” was Merle’s tribute to his friend, mentor and sometime provider of songs, the great Tommy Collins. It might not be one of Merle’s most universal songs, but it’s one of my favourites, so it’s so good to hear Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy sing it here. There’s something karmically pleasing about hearing a tribute song covered on a tribute album. It’s a loop of love that makes me smile.

Part of the reason that Merle loved Tommy Collins was surely that he was a fellow worker in song, and one of the great strengths of country music is its love of the song. It treats the song as an art form, something like a short story set to music. Writers like Merle, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams and Harlan Howard learnt to write by listening to others and by observing the world around them, by being students of both music and humanity. This meant that they knew a great song when they heard it. “If I Could Only Fly” was written by Blaze Foley. He may not be as well known as the writers just mentioned, but you just know that each one of them would love to have written this song. It was the title track of Merle’s first album of the new century, and one that started a run of records that included some of the very best music that he made.

Merle had sung the song in concert for years and even released it previously on a 1987 duets album with Willie Nelson, so it was a song he’d lived with, that he’d learnt to wear like a second skin. His 2000 version is one of his defining statements. I won’t write about it here, but go and listen to it if you haven’t heard it already. Its importance here is that it’s the song that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy chooses to close this album. A song not written by Merle Haggard to close out a Merle Haggard tribute album. Maybe he’s making a point that it doesn’t matter who wrote the songs if they’re sung right. Maybe not. Whatever his intention, the version here, though it might not have the stately grace of Merle’s, is true to the spirit of the song — fragile, tentative, near broken. All of the songs here remain true, in different ways, to the spirit of Merle’s music. Human, vulnerable, defiant, a little bit wild.

Music can work as collective emotional memory. Once a song is written, it belongs to us all. The songs here may have come from the pen and records of Merle Haggard, but this record gives them new life. If Merle lovingly studied the work of men like Lefty Frizzell, then this record makes it clear that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has listened to Merle with just as much love and just as keen an ear. It seems to me that just as writer needs to read, then a musician needs to listen. The idea of being a student of music is one that I think is maybe getting lost today. It doesn’t have to imply a cold, academic appreciation. Rather, it should be an immersion in the sounds that others have made to learn how the sinews of music hold a song together. To learn how the shaping of sound can lead to the shaping of feeling. How the movement of air can move hearts and minds. Merle Haggard’s songs, often loaded with a wisdom acquired from years of life, possessed an awareness of just what music could do, of what it could be. He made music that affected people in the same way that his heroes’ music affected him.

Best Troubadour succeeds in that it gives the songs Merle sang the same emotional load that he did himself. In doing so, it will surely introduce a new audience to the music of Merle Haggard and from there, hopefully, to the treasures of country music. Perhaps, and possibly even cooler, it might introduce some Merle Haggard fans to the music of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. There’s a lot there that they could love.


Best Troubador is out now and available here.

Tim Tooher on Caught by the River