My affection for the work of Will Oldham, bka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is no secret, and the best thing about being a Bonnie fan is that you never have to wait too long for some new material to materialize. If he’s not putting something out, then he’s definitely in the process of cooking something up. Last year alone, fans were treated to a comp of his Peel Sessions recordings; two separate collaborative albums with Bitchin Bajas (one studio release and a live cassette); a split 7-inch with Oscar Parsons; a 7-inch flexi with The Cairo Gang (connected to a Marijn Van Kreij art exhibit); a tour only cassette; a vinyl reissue of More Revery, his rare 6-song EP of cover songs recorded in 2000 (including tunes from folks like PJ Harvey and Bill Withers); and a trio of contributions on the massive 10 LP Day Of The Dead, Grateful Dead tribute compilation. 2016 may have been a tragic year for many of us for a number of reasons, but it was overflowing with good fortune in the world of Bonnie Billy recorded material. Among those tragedies, of course, were the countless deaths of some of the most iconic figures in music history. Among those deaths, was Merle Haggard, an artist who Oldham‘s affection for is also well documented, including an interview he was able to conduct with the man himself for, now defunkt, Filter magazine back in 2009.
This May 5th, we get our first real serving of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy of the new year, as he pays homage to his late hero with a Haggard tribute featuring 17 tracks from different points throughout Mighty Merle‘s catalog/career. The basic concept of the double-LP, titled Best Troubador, had been in the works for quite a while, but the momentum was all but halted by the legendary songwriter’s passing in April of last year. This project wasn’t born out of a necessity to acknowledge the “poet of the common man” postmortem, but rather quite the opposite. The press release elaborates:
“The goal was to participate in the handing forward of the songs of a living legend, as Merle had done so many times in his own career. With Merle gone, some of the impetus of the project was in peril. A plan to make the album in Nashville studios was abandoned. The songs still called to be played again, however – and so sessions were endeavored at home, capturing feeling, memory and new expression in familiar confines with the full-hearted playing and singing of 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.“
“The songs sung on Best Troubador are pulled from all over – from Haggard’s 3rd album in 1967 though to his 47th in 2011 – but this is no simple hits compilation. Capable only of occupying a shared space between himself and Merle Haggard, Bonny chose personal favorites to find Merle and himself together in the music. Moving from 1978 to 1969 to 2003 to 1981 and so on allows the album to circle Haggard’s music in a simulation of thought and memory, slipping around from spot to spot as if they were discrete impressions, unknown but knowable yet. Dedicated to new life and old, Best Troubadour is wistful and bittersweet, for the triumph of a life spent in unending pursuit of the goal: new and expressive music, as our inspirations and heroes once sang it.“
For the first single, Oldham has chosen the classic “Mama Tried,” which is, incidentally, the one tune on the album where he relinquishes lead vocal duties, handing them over to featured collaborator, Oscar Parsons. Those who download the Vimeo app onto heir smartphones will be able to view the new video for the track in 360 degree virtual reality via headset. This is no doubt the ideal method for anyone that’s yearning to immerse themselves in the sensation of standing in an open field with Oldham, Parson, and a tiny dog in a vest. Otherwise, you can still check out the video in monoscopic 360° playback below.