Essential New Music: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s “Best Troubador”

The first song Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) ever sang onstage was a Merle Haggard cover. He repays the debt fully with this 16-track compilation of Haggard covers. With two exceptions, he avoids the obvious hits, choosing to shine a light on Haggard’s often downhearted love songs with arrangements that avoid country-music conventions. A spooky slide guitar makes “Roses In The Winter” sound like a lament, with Oldham’s trembling voice adding to the song’s despondent feel. “My Old Pal” echoes the Carter Family with its folky harmonies and simple melody, while a smoky sax makes “I Always Get Lucky With You,” a hit Haggard wrote for George Jones, sound like a cocktail-lounge standard. After a slow start, Oldham and the band romp through “Wouldn’t That Be Something,” a tune that shows off Haggard’s interest in science fiction and includes a wry, self-referential quote from the more famous and oft-covered “Today I Started Loving You Again.”

—j. poet