The cult Americana artist is releasing an album full of Merle Haggard cover versions, 'Best Troubador'. We spoke to him about his all-time favourite country stars
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is a man who knows good country. The artist otherwise known as Will Oldham has been alternative Americana’s most respected cult hero for two decades and now he’s releasing an album made up entirely of covers of songs by his own icon, outlaw country legend Merle Haggard. ‘Best Troubador’ is set for release on May 5 and makes for tender tribute to the California country artist, who passed away in April 2016. We called Will at home in Kentucky and got him to talk us through his love of Merle as well as giving us the low-down on some of his other favourite country music artists.
Who: Born in 1937, Merle Haggard was incarcerated in San Quentin when he saw Johnny Cash play one of his iconic prison shows in 1959. The rest is history. He switched crime for music, playing character-driven songs in the Bakersfield style – grittier and more rock and roll than the Nashville sound. He is generally considered to be one of country music’s greats.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy says: “What’s not to love?! When I really, really started to dig into him was in the mid-1990s. I was aware I loved a lot of his songs, I loved a lot of his music, but I didn’t understand how much I could identify with how he what he did until I listened to a four CD career anthology that I think Capitol put it out. I was just like ‘oh this is insane’. He was born in California and Bakersfield is where he got musical chops. He had a wild streak in him, a lot negative influences which led to some criminal activity, which made him do prison time. I think he realised that he had a future in music where there wasn’t a future in crime.
“He didn’t always necessarily think he was the best, so he was always trying to get better by sitting back and observing and inspecting and covering the works of the people that he admired. The most important thing to him was to continue to mine the history of American country and western and folk music and to develop his skills as a singer and to develop his skills as a songwriter and to use both of those to create songs and collections of songs of superior quality. He stood alone in that… I’m getting older and I look around and I see musicians get kind of lamer as they get older but Merle’s here to inspire us and show us that’s not always the rule.”
Best song: ‘Mama Tried’
Who: Born in Texas in 1939, Don Williams began his solo career in 1971. A crooner as much as a country singer, the laid-back artist retired in 2016.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy says: “Don Williams is known as the gentle giant. He’s huge in some countries in Africa, I believe he may be on a postal stamp somewhere near the Ivory Coast. The first time I saw him I was sitting next to some folks and Don was halfway through his first song when the man turned to the women who was next to me and he said ‘it doesn’t get any smoother’. It really doesn’t.
“He had a long partnership with a writer named Bob McDill who would write these confessional kinda complex and challenging songs but know that the simplicity with which Don Williams would delivered them could get the song across in a way no body else could. For example, he had a hit with a song called ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me’ which talks about the writer Thomas Wolfe and Tennessee Williams. It was a major hit on country radio in middle America. People didn’t realise they were getting a little bit of a literary history lesson. That song still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.”
Best song: ‘I Wouldn’t Want To Live If You Didn’t Love Me’
Who: Born in Kentucky in 1957, coal miner’s daughter Patty Loveless – aka Patricia Lee Ramey – had been singing since the 1970s but broke out as a solo artist in the late 1980s, singing traditional style country music ballads. Her last album, the bluegrass-inspired ‘Mountain Soul II’ was released in 2009.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy says: “There was a time around 1990 when I would hear her songs on jukeboxes in bars and I started listening more to modern country radio at that time because I thought there was a kind of renaissance going on. I was hearing songs that I thought were really awesome and kept on catching me.
“The first one that floored me was ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’. The first verse talks about a woman leaving her married home, step by step, and what she does; she puts her ring on the pillow, she leaves the clothes on the floor and she’s walking through the house and then she leaves a note. The second verse is him when he finds the note, he finds the ring and then he calls her to say he’s sorry but then he doesn’t remember what for and then he sings the chorus. It’s so heavy and it’s so beautiful. I just fell head over heels in love with Patty Loveless.”
Best song: ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’
Who: Born in 1956, the multi-million selling Dwight Yoakham started playing honky-tonk hillbilly country music in the mid-1980s. He’s covered everyone from Elvis to The Clash and Johnny Cash once called him his favourite singer.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy says: “I started to hear his music in the late 1980s and I thought his singing sounded really strange and kind of contrived but I began to listen to him more and I started to love it. Then his fifth album ‘This Time’ came out and immediately I was like ‘this record is terrible and if he ever had anything, he’s completely lost it’.
“Then the more I listened to it, the more I thought ‘this record is brilliant, this record is incredible, this is one of the most interesting country records to come out in years’. There’s a song on it called ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’ that reminds me of nothing less than the Ramones’ ‘Here Today Gone Tomorrow’.”
Best song: ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’