Imagine arranging Merle Haggard's millions of fans in concentric circles. In the outermost ring, place the casual listeners, the ones familiar with "Mama Tried," some of the canonical 1960s material and maybe the hoopla around "Okie From Muskogee." A slightly smaller – if still spacious – circle encompasses those who stuck with Haggard as long as country radio did; he scored his last Number One airplay hit as a solo artist in 1987. Next you enter into a circle of dedicated enthusiasts, the active listeners who have continued to hunt down and pore over Haggard's LPs, and that's where you'll find Will Oldham, who records under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Oldham, a veteran singer/songwriter who works in a space abutting country, folk and rock, has been releasing albums on the Chicago indie label Drag City since the 1990s, and on May 5th, he is putting out a Haggard tribute LP, Best Troubador. There's a radical idea behind the record, a notion at odds with the overly simplistic way we tend to think about the artistic process. Standard wisdom suggests that a singer's best work is the early stuff, the results of a youthful, naive eruption of uncontainable creativity. This emphasis is often magnified if, like Haggard, an artist began recording in the oft-lionized Sixties.
In contrast, "when I feel Merle gets really interesting is the mid-1980s," Oldham tells Rolling Stone Country, speaking over the phone from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, as his dog barks and birds chip in the background. "That's where I like to listen to the albums like they're little zen problems. Then from 1996 on, essentially he's achieved enlightenment – an ability to express himself as a singer and a songwriter that I'm not sure another person has achieved."
Oldham gives short shrift to arguments that Haggard's output was hampered by the production techniques popular in country's post-Outlaw period, and pop more generally at the time: soppy keyboards, the occasional lone saxophone, the hammy backing vocals you hear in Merle's final chart topper, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star." "[The albums] make you stop in your tracks," Oldham says. "What is that drum sound? What is that weird keyboard sound that's happening? Am I supposed to take this seriously?"
"Then you listen a couple times and realize, yeah, you are supposed to take this seriously," he continues. "[Haggard] fills the songs with idiosyncrasy and complexity, emotional and spiritual challenge. It's his Trojan Horse, the keyboard sound or the drum sound on A Friend in California : he made records that could get played on the radio because of the way they sounded, and then he could make the songs as wild or creepy or experimental as he felt he needed to."
The idea to record Best Troubador came together roughly 18 months ago. (It's not Oldham's first tribute record – in 2013, he recorded an album of Everly Brothers covers with Dawn McCarthy.) Oldham put together a list of Haggard songs for his band to perform live, and they played their first all-Haggard show in December 2015. Then in April 2016, Haggard died. "Frankly, that unbelievable day when I read that he had passed, I just really thought that we should shelve the concept," Oldham remembers. "The idea wasn't to make a posthumous tribute record. That's a different kind of record."
But the depth of Haggard's catalog and the extent to which Oldham believes some parts of it are sold short helped get the project back on track. "People have a lot of respect for Merle, but they're probably not fully cognizant of how much deeper they could go and find such gold," Oldham says. "There's gonna be the joy of exploring and discovering [when you listen to Best Troubador] – in all the pre-nuclear holocaust years we have left."
The original plan was to record in Nashville, but deaths close to home kept Oldham in Louisville. "I was at my wit's end with the different things happening with Merle's death and losing other people in my world," Oldham recalled. "I didn't think I could go out of town to make this record. I was reading interviews with Merle, and there was one where he was talking about Roots Vol. 1 , and he said it was recorded live in his living room with no overdubs and one microphone. I thought: 'Ok, that's what we're going to do.'"
To learn more about the creation of Roots Vol. 1, Oldham consulted Lou Bradley, who engineered the record – along with classics from George Jones, Charlie Rich and Johnny Paycheck. "I got [Bradley] on the phone and said, 'This is our plan,'" Oldham recounts. "He said, 'Wait a minute, one microphone? Who told you that? I mic'd everything.'" So Oldham changed course again, deciding to record in a setting he describes as "live to two-track in a living room." Some flute contributions from Nuala Kennedy were overdubbed later.
Oldham and his band execute Haggard's songs – many from after the 1970s – with a light touch. The drums are charmingly discreet, and loose, winning harmony singing, often male-female, gives the album a boost. Flute trills from Kennedy often join soft, curling lines from the saxophone player Drew Miller.
Oldham's voice is not as immediately arresting as Haggard's, but it has conversational grace – producing appealing melodies never seems to require an ounce of effort – and occasional touches of Appalachian quaver. "All I can do is try to apply the approach that I imagined he had," Oldham explains. "I thought about some ways he would twist a note and about the ideas he had towards his own voice – he made his voice a better instrument his whole life. I used to think that's just what happens when you get older: you become a worse singer. Merle proved that wrong."
Best Troubador excels when it moves at a snail's pace. The crawling, waltz-like "Some of Us Fly," the lagging, stately "Pray," the juicy, honky-tonk dawdle "Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)" – these are beautiful constructions, the work of an artist secure in his vision. They're also the kind of tribute songs that might embolden listeners to leave behind the outer circle of Haggard-fandom and head toward the inner sanctum.