Essential Wax with Bonnie “Prince” Billy

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Essential Wax series is an intimate look into the record collections of some of the world’s most beloved artists. Hear from the creators of some of your favorite records about the records that had a big impact on them and in turn influenced their work.

Will Oldham has been writing and performing music for nearly 25 years under various names including string of Palace variations (Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music) from 1993-97, his own name, and since 1998 under probably his best known moniker, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Though the name might change, one thing that’s always consistent is his characteristic sound that marries Americana, country, folk, roots and indie rock. Prolific barely even covers it for this Louisville singer-songwriter and actor, who is constantly recording and boasts an extensive and varied output.

Earlier last year, Oldham began working on a Merle Haggard tribute album, “Best Troubador“. “I wanted to make a Merle record for the Merle that I was in love with by going through and finding the adorable side of Merle Haggard as a singer and as a songwriter,” Oldham tells The Guardian. “I wanted to show people that he’s awesome in a completely different way than I feel like he gets recognition for being awesome.” Sadly, Haggard passed away in April of last year, before he was able to hear the finished album, an experience eerily similar to Haggard’s ‘My Farewell To Elvis‘ album. While Oldham isn’t entirely sure “Best Troubador” would have appealed to Haggard, he thought he should do his best to try. The result is an earnest, delicate and sweet record.

In celebration of “Best Troubador”s release, Will Oldham took the time to tell us about his favorite Merle Haggard records and why these ones are particularly meaningful to him.

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Check out Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s favorite Merle Haggard records:

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: I Am What I Am

1. I Am What I Am

Leave it to Merle to elevate the hackneyed title with a monster record and a monster title song. Monster like Where The Wild Things Are monster.  The book not the movie. “How Did You Find Me Here” tags with a credit to Our Lord, but our lord is everyone and one’s self.  And to hear that Merle gets off on banda trumpets, or it least that he sings that he does, in “Mexican Bands” is pretty affirming.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: Back To The Barrooms

2. Back To The Barrooms

From 1980, big tight and smooth. The blue eyes match our BEST TROUBADOR eyes.  Merle inserts himself here and there, to good effect on Hank Jr.’s “I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs”.  The other day I heard the Tommy Collins song from which Merle’s folks lifted the “Leonard” riff. That was a pleasant surprise, though I can’t recall the name of the jammer.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: Serving 190 Proof

3. Serving 190 Proof

This one’s almost too good. Hag puts feelings into music that others haven’t before or since, “Got Lonely Too Early This Morning” being a prime example. “My Own Kind of Hat” is radical gentle wordplay at its finest. “Roses in the Winter” is our song, mine and my wife’s. And when Hag says, sweetly and matter-of-factly, “I’ll fight my rage and hit the stage” we realize we can trust him because he trusts us.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: Haggard Like Never Before

4. Haggard Like Never Before

In 2003, Merle Haggard was in the middle of a sweet little run of self-released records, on the Hag label. This is the focused high-point, fun, frank, lusty. That’s a good character name: ’Fun’ Frank Lusty. Maybe that’s who is singing all of these songs. We’ve performed Hag’s “Because of Your Eyes” (from this record) more than any other of his songs.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: Down Every Road (1962-1994) Compilation

5. Down Every Road (1962-1994)

This is a 4-CD compilation that Capitol put out in the mid-1990s. It’s the most efficient and effective general overview of a great recording artist that I’ve encountered. The songs are presented in chronological order and cover Hag’s work from the early days up until 1994. There’s also a few powerhouse Bear Family boxes that are for the deep diver.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy's favorite Merle Haggard Records: 1996

6. 1996

Recorded in Merle’s Talley Studio, this was the game-changer for me. There’s no questioning everything Haggard did up to this point, it’s tremendous. It’s just that in 1996, he started making records for him and his, without taking potential airplay into account. That’s how it sounds and feels. I particularly love the way that the guest singers’ voices (from Dwight Yoakam, Bob Teague, Buck Owens, and John Anderson) sit in the mix with Merle’s voice. His take on Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry” is a master class in song ownership.

Get a copy of ‘Best Troubador‘ and explore Bonnie “Prince” Billy‘s full back-catalog on Discogs!

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