Duet mania seems to be sweeping country music, but the trend is getting old fast. Not that it’s a new trick for two hit artists to team up for a song; the occasional lovey-dovey duet is always a thrill, whether it’s Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn, or Emmylou Harris and Roy Orbison. But the romantic ones can become sickly sweet and the man-to-man bouts as boring as two barflies arguing over who drank more last night.
CBS Records is the company most responsible for the current glut of country duets. And the worst individual offender, statistically, has been Willie Nelson, who has recorded singles with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, as well as whole albums with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Webb Pierce and Roger Miller — most of whom, to put it kindly, have already done their best work. These projects plus his solo records have put Nelson on the verge of overexposure, and his new duet album with Merle Haggard would have been the last straw if it hadn’t been the very best of the whole bunch.
What makes Poncho & Lefty so disarming is that the connection between the two singers is never forced. After all, Nelson and Haggard are the country equivalents of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra — the top of the league, but very different. As a result, the duets occur at odd angles. Willie warbles weirdly in the background while Merle croons the barbershop-quartet-like “My Mary,” and the two suggest sad split personalities on “Half a Man,” a devastating original that ranks alongside such Nelson standards as “Funny How Time Slips Away.” And on the classic Townes Van Zandt song-movie that gives the album its name, Willie spells out the mysterious story and Merle comes in, dramatically, with just the last verse. The couple of times the two sing together draw mixed results: “Reasons to Quit” is tolerably jokey, but “All the Soft Places to Fall” (written by Haggard’s wife, Leona Williams) steps right into the singsong corniness the rest of the album avoids.
Ultimately, Nelson dominates Poncho & Lefty, which turns out to be not a bad thing. He’s in fine voice because he’s picked some country oldies that he relates to well (unlike the rock songs, such as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” on Always on My Mind, which practically screamed, “Earth to Willie! Earth to Willie!”). Smiley Burnette’s “It’s My Lazy Day” and two songs by Bob Wills’ former fiddler, Jesse Ashlock, suit the light-jazz style of singing Willie has favored in recent years, and “Still Water Runs the Deepest” shows off the spare arrangements and impeccable musicianship that characterize the album’s production.
If Poncho & Lefty demonstrates the best qualities of duet albums, A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine, which pairs Haggard with George Jones, shows off the worst. It’s an obvious rush job, full of songs that are either drinking-buddy clichés or sanctimonious hogwash (it’s one thing to sing songs about the everyday workingman’s life and another to sing songs congratulating yourself for doing so, like “Silver Eagle”). Jones’ dispirited singing doesn’t inspire sympathy; his high, pure whine has started to sound, well, whiny. This album seems conceived by crass packagers who figure people will buy anything by stars. Why not prove them wrong by boycotting this album and checking out the latest releases by lesser-known worthies like John Starling and Sleepy LaBeef?
Overshadowed by Willie Nelson and George Jones on the duet albums, Merle Haggard more than makes up for it on Going Where the Lonely Go, his fiftieth solo album in seventeen years. Haggard’s singing is so understated in its quest for the kernel of truth in a song that sometimes he sounds dull at first, and it does take some time to warm to this new album. Many of the songs are slower and bluesier than usual, and he performs them thoughtfully rather than melodramatically, as if he’s trying to say that sad feelings are part of life, not the end of the world. The album isn’t unrelievedly gloomy, though. The best cut is a jaunty Leona Williams tune called “Someday You’re Gonna Need Your Friends Again,” and the LP closes with a delicious rendition of the standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine.” It may not be Haggard’s best record ever, but Going Where the Lonely Go proves that good taste is timeless.