Will Oldham is a superior songwriter and vocalist when he wants to be, but there's just enough of a willful persona to his work as Bonnie "Prince" Billy and within the Palace rubric that it's hard to tell when he's being serious and when he's pulling his audience's collective leg, even when his work is good. One of the things that makes Best Troubador something truly special is that, more than nearly all of Oldham's work to date, he's playing straight throughout, and for a good reason. The misspelled but sincere honorific of the title refers to Merle Haggard; according to the liner notes, this album was in the works before Hag's death in April 2016, but when the great man passed, Oldham and his collaborators refashioned it into a tribute album devoted to songs Haggard wrote or sang. Most of the album was recorded and mixed live, with flute and sax added to the arrangements along with the more traditional guitars, fiddles, and banjos, and the overall effect is certainly idiosyncratic, as one might expect from Oldham; this sounds like a slightly buzzed guitar pull as often as it sounds like a fully focused recording session. But if the tone of these performances is laid-back, they're also sincere and committed, and as a vocalist BPB has rarely been better. As a songwriter, Oldham clearly appreciates the craft of Haggard's songwriting, as well as the honest emotional pull of these tunes, and he sings them with a genuine measure of respect and love. And the grainy drawl of Oldham's voice was made to order for these stories of the ups and downs of life and love, and it's all but impossible not to be moved by this craggy sincerity and the genuine soul of this music. There are more deep cuts than familiar hits on Best Troubador, but that's another part of what makes this album so pleasurable; this is a deep dive into Haggard's body of work as seen through the eyes of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Oldham and his crew deliver plenty of reminders why Hag was one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. In his liner notes, Oldham writes, "Hag won't make more music, but the music he made is deep and rich and complex and forever yielding." Best Troubador does a splendid job of showing how right he is about Haggard and his songs, and you'd have to go back to 1994's splendid multi-artist disc Tulare Dust to hear as sincere and affecting a tribute to this most American of artists.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming