CD: Bonnie Prince Billy - Best Troubadour "Will Oldham remembers country legend Merle Haggard&q


From the Arts Desk

Best Troubadour is Bonnie Prince Billy's musical tribute to his "forever hero", country singer Merle Haggard. Haggard was best known for his song "Okie from Muskogee", a wry homage to small-town Southern values. Students of country music, however, remember a different Merle – the armed robber turned musician and iconoclast. In his own bohemian way Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Will Oldham, is another sort of radical. And on Best Troubadour he interprets Haggard's artistic vision through 16 of his lesser-known songs.

The album opens with "The Fugitive", whose lyrics evoke the dirt and desperation of life on the run. Such a visceral feel was pure Haggard. The other songs in the collection continue to capture much of that sensibility. But tellingly, the effect is strongest when paying close attention to the words. For while the album encompasses various styles, from the country- shuffle of "Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)" to the lounge jazz of "I Always Get Lucky with You", Oldham's quivering voice always manages to sound a little wistful and somewhat folky.

Perhaps that's inevitable. Still, by placing Haggard's material in a gumbo of folk, country, blues, and jazz, Oldham explores the relationship between Haggard and Americana. And that – a widescreen sense of the American heartlands – is the key to this album. These covers may not have the immediate appeal of the originals, but they feel deeper. Indeed, the more you listen, the more you find yourself lost in tales of trans-American heartache and adventure. The effect is both enriching and absorbing.

Of course, Best Troubadour is not an artistic statement like an album of originals, but nor is it intended to be. That's typical of Bonnie Prince Billy. Over 25 or more years he's notched up 30-odd albums containing all manner of gems and curios. Appropriately enough, such prolific and varied output is something else he shares with Merle.

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