Published May 12, 2017When Merle Haggard died in April 2016, Will Oldham was already working on Best Troubador, a new Bonnie 'Prince' Billy collection of covers that Haggard wrote and/or popularized (the album is out now on Drag City). Over the phone from his home in Louisville, KY, Oldham describes it as a tribute to Haggard's work and his approach to music generally.
"It became a different record many times over the course of the last year-and-a-half," Oldham tells Exclaim! "Most significantly, it was undertaken while Merle Haggard was alive and with the thought that we would be making a record in tandem with his living efforts. When he died, it fucked that whole idea up. It wasn't meant to be a posthumous record, so that was the biggest way it became a different record."
Throughout his illustrious run as one of the most prolific and singular artistic forces to have emerged in the past 25 years, Will Oldham has devoted some of his time to performing and recording songs that were composed by others — the Everly Brothers, Mekons, Misfits and many others — often delving into their inner workings to make them his own.
Oldham says he ultimately hoped the record would spark a dialogue with Haggard, highlighting the late rebel's underappreciated gifts as a singer and songwriter. He also makes the distinction because his record is coming out a year after Haggard's death and he expresses concern about how it will be perceived — as the kind of "you are missed" dispatch that he loathes.
"It really bothers me when somebody dies and then for the next three or four days, you see all the social media postings or columns saying, 'We miss you, you're awesome.' It's like, 'No, this person is dead. They can't hear you.'
"Then they say, 'Why don't we do a tribute concert to this person.' Again, it's like, 'Why didn't you do this six months ago?' It's no tribute. I don't understand why people pay more attention to dead people than living people. This was not meant to be a record for a dead man, it was supposed to be a record for a living man.
"A beautiful thing happened maybe two months ago — my wife and I were shopping for shelves at an antique mall and one vendor was selling old music magazines from the '70s and '80s," Oldham adds. "There was one called Honky Tonk that I'd never heard of and Merle was on the cover, so I bought it. In it, he describes making his Elvis Presley record, which he began when Elvis was alive. Then Elvis died and Merle talks about having these same feelings — like, 'I didn't want to put this record out; that's not what it was supposed to be.'
"I just said, 'Well, forget it, I just have to go with my intentions,' because I'd already put the work into the record. So, it was like this beautiful, ghostly voice from beyond saying, 'It's appropriate.'"
Listen to the entire interview with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy on the Kreative Kontrol podcast: