Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Best Troubadour

by Ljubinko Zivkovic Rating:10 Release Date:2017-05-05

Will Oldham, or Palace Brothers, or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (and everything else he was in between) is probably one of the biggest shapeshifters in modern music. He’s also one of the more intelligent and better ones at the same time. And that does not only concern his monikers but his music and lyrics too, even though that might not be that obvious at first glance or listen. Probably no wonder from a man who started out as an acting child prodigy on the verge of success and who then suddenly abandoned his promising acting career for a musical one.

He remained in music ever since, but obviously and consciously shunning away from anything that would get him close to widespread success. The closest he got to that is when Johnny Cash picked up his “I See Darkness” for his millennial album “American III: Solitary Man”, for which Oldham himself sang backing vocals. It was a dark song on one of the most somber country albums ever (or any albums as such for that matter) that also included a hair-raising version of Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat”. Still, although one of his idols picked up his tune for which he got wider recognition, Oldham limited himself to a measure of success he wanted - not more than an indie cult following. To that effect, I remember that at one of his shows I attended one of his then new songs got a particularly good reception with the crowd. Oldham Bonnie ‘Prince’, Palace, just had one comment to that: “Good to know you like it that much, so I don’t have to include it on my next album”.

I guess that is where all those changes come from. Folk, lo-fi, country, psychedelia, even ambient… Whichever album of his you pick up it has another element there - a new one, the one he hasn’t had in a while, a combination of few disparate things, just as long as it is not absolutely the same thing he did last time. His lyrics are yet another story. The variation in themes is never missing, but there is one constant though - if there is a human fallibility that Oldham did not previously examine, you can expect it to crop up at some point. From all of this, one key question arises - where did all this come from

While Oldham is not exactly one of the personally more open musicians, he expressly cites Merle Haggard as one of his key inspirations. After all, a story goes that a Merle Haggard song was the first one he ever played live. And that is where this new album comes in. “Best Troubadour” (a clear title if there ever was one with Oldham) is something that should play a “straight ahead” tribute album to Haggard. Then again, is there anything straight ahead with this guy? Actually, that is probably one of the reasons Oldham, in any of his guises, is that good. So is “Best Troubadour”.

Oldham has been preparing this album for a while, and Haggard’s death in 2016 almost derailed the whole project. The planned recordings in Nashville were scrapped and Oldham recorded the whole thing at home with 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. And here again, Oldham stuck to his guns - he basically recorded only two out of more than fifty songs that are considered hits for Haggard, picking obviously the ones he really likes and feels. The whole album has that “back porch” feel (in contrast to lo-fi), giving the tunes presented an additional element of reality. There is a clarity with which Oldham sings Haggard’s lyrics, exemplifying where his inspiration in that respect came too.

What Oldham actually did is interpret Haggard’s songs by making them his own, and that is a remarkable achievement. I have no doubt that if Haggard was around he would certainly approve.

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