The tribute album is always a difficult ship to sail. Before the needle is dropped, one particular question pricks the listeners mind: if the original songs are so strong that they warrant an album in tribute them, then what can an artist bring to those songs that makes them feel new, invigorated or different? For Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, the longstanding alias of Kentucky born singer-songwriter Will Oldham, it turns out the answer is not much, yet an awful lot.
Taking on the catalogue of one of his greatest heroes, country songwriter Merle Haggard, who passed away in 2016, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy masterfully negotiates these waters. Assembling a small band of players, the appropriately named Bonafied United Musicians, Oldham keeps his sound restricted yet exceptionally elegant. The whole atmosphere of the album is intimate and personal, engineered to recreate the sensation and excitement of a live performance, complete with all the warmth and nuance one would expect.
One of ‘Best Troubador’ greatest achievements is that it never slips into indulgent sentimentality or banal mimicry, which many would be tempted to do when covering an artist who’s style undeniably is the product of a previous generation. The style of songwriting and balladry that Haggard mastered simply isn’t abundant in today’s music – the chord progressions and arrangements of ‘I Always Get Lucky With You’ are a fine example of this foregone style – so when recreating these songs, an atmosphere of nostalgia unavoidably permeates throughout the album. It is within this space, however, that Oldham‘s confidence as a musician breeds a different life into Haggard‘s work. Having spent more than two decades forging his own distinctive style, Oldham has an ease and assurance to his playing now that means he need not rip up the blueprints laid down by Haggard, but rather allow his unique sensibility for ambience, arrangement and harmony to subtly emerge out from Haggard‘s gorgeous songbook, branding each track with Oldham‘s distinct character.
Perhaps the most lasting impression of ‘Best Troubador’ is that is exists as an exaltation of the two featured artists, demonstrating both how great Merle Haggard was and how sublime Will Oldham is. Like the hero he is paying tribute to, Oldham is a craftsman of exceptional talent. In a further twenty-years time, with a greater wealth of music added to his catalogue, it seems only a sensible predication that a there will be a ‘Best Troubador’ made in honour of Will Oldham. Until then, though, this marriage of talents is ample for any person to get lost in.