INTERVIEW: Will Oldham talks about his upcoming Merle Haggard Tribute: “Best Troubador”

Will Oldham and I aren’t friends. Hell, I’ve never actually met the guy face to face, despite the two of us sharing the same hometown and being in the same room watching bands play many times. Having said that, I’ve been a fan of his music since my late teens when a friend introduced me to his I See A Darkness record which over time has become a bonafide classic that has never completely abandoned my personal rotation.

While I know next to nothing about Oldham (aside from his massive catalogue of excellent records), I do know that we have something in common in that we share a passionate affection for the music of Merle Haggard. When I caught wind that Bonnie “Prince” Billy had a Haggard tribute record on the way, I knew I had to reach out to ask a few questions about this endeavor. Thankfully, he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new record, titled Best Troubadour, which is set to be released May 5th via Drag City (pre-order it here).

Never Nervous: When did you first really fall in love with Merle Haggard, and what drew you to his music initially?

Will Oldham: Shit, writing this out feels like homework. I got my serious Merle crush from the DOWN EVERY ROAD box set. I fell head-over-heels with his 1996 CD. I think a key factor was what he did with his music once he became a master. He dug deeper.

“I wanted him to hear it. I wanted to have an unspoken artist dialogue with the man. Then he died before we made the record.”

NN: Aside from being a fan of Merle’s, what was the motivation behind recording a collection of your own renditions of his songs?

WO: I wanted him to hear it. I wanted to have an unspoken artist dialogue with the man. Then he died before we made the record. The goal with this record is to highlight a life spent obsessed with songs and with singing them.

NN: Considering Haggard’s massive library of songs, how hard was it hard it to narrow down 16 songs, and how did you choose those in particular?

WO: It just took time. It was a pleasure to listen and listen with the intent of picking a group of songs to present to the musicians, and then to try out that group of songs (about 25-30 songs) until we had a distilled list of jammers that we could attack with love and singularity, songs that also fed off of and complimented each other in a collection.

NN: What can you tell us about the sound on Best Troubador? Was it recorded with a full band, or is it just your voice and a guitar?

WO: Aw man, you haven’t heard it?! It’s a big ole band, with flute and sax and everything. We recorded it live in a living room, like Merle did with his Roots Volume 1 CD.

NN: Where does the title Best Troubador come from? Is there a significance behind it that relates to Merle Haggard?

WO: One of the songs we worked on was Merle’s “Troubadour”, in which he says over and over again that he is a troubadour. Then I borrowed from his Bob Wills tribute record, which he says is for the “best damn fiddle player in the world” or something along those lines. Then I took out the ‘u’ in the last syllable to make it more American.

“It’s the later songs that really get rich, that you can really sink your teeth into.”

NN: Was it a conscious decision to mix older classics (“I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall” & “The Fugitive”) with a healthy dose of newer, lesser known tracks (“Wouldn’t That Be Something” & “I Am What I Am”)?

WO: It’s the later songs that really get rich, that you can really sink your teeth into. And I wanted to show how strong the foundation was upon which those songs were built.

NN: What would you consider to be your favorite track of his that isn’t on Best Troubador?

WO: That is a tuffy. Bonnie Owens was asked once what her favorite Merle song was and she replied “You mean that he wrote?” because Merle owns a lot of songs, that he wrote, co-wrote, or covered. I’ve sung “Because of Your Eyes” a lot, I love that one. “After I Sing All My Songs”, “This Time I Really Do”, “My Own Kind of Hat”, “How Did You Find Me Here”, “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday”….

NN: I know you’ve played a few Merle Haggard songs live in the past, but would you ever consider playing a full set of nothing but Hag tunes?

WO: Oh, we’ve already done that a couple few times.

NN: Do you have a personal favorite collaborative song of his? It’s cheesy, but I really like his joint effort with Willie Nelson on “Pancho & Lefty”.

WO: “I Won’t Give Up My Train”, with Roger Miller.

NN: It is my understanding that you had the opportunity to interview Merle back in 2009 for Filter magazine. How did that come together, and what was that experience like?

WO: Pat McGuire at Filter made it happen, in cooperation with Tresa Redburn, who was Merle’s publicist. The interview was conducted over the telephone. It was a decent experience. He sang to me.

“The interview (with Merle Haggard) was conducted over the telephone. It was a decent experience. He sang to me.”

NN: In closing, is there a particular lyric from a Merle Haggard tune that resonates with you now more than ever?

WO: Sure, how about “The Immigrant”:

American ranching consists of a mansion
Where illegal immigrants do much of the labor by hand
They sneak ’em through customs till time comes to bust ’em
Then haul ’em back over the border to their own native land

With a ragged sombrero and not much dinero
They’ll be back again when the ole Rio Grande is down low
So border patroller don’t stop the stroller
‘Cause the Mexican immigrant is helping America grow

Viva La Mexico, go where they let you go
And do what you can for the land
Take home dinero and buy new sombrero
And come back again when you can

What makes a gringo use smart aleck lingo
When he stole his land from the Indian man way back when
Don’t he remember the big money lender
That put him a Lincoln parked where his Pinto had been

The almighty peso that gives him the say so
To dry up the river whenever there’s crops to bring in
is this a good neighbor? to take all his labor
Chase him back over the border till he’s needed again