First off, I’d just like to say: THANK GOD FOR WILLIE NELSON and MERLE HAGGARD! There, now that we have that out of the way, let’s continue. It was announced earlier this year that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were teaming up for another collaborative album, and the cheers were deafening. When you see Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard on a project, it’s guaranteed to be great, but when you see that they’re teaming up together for a project, you know it’s going to be legendary. Two of the founding fathers of Outlaw Country Music, Haggard and Nelson, cumulatively, have more than a century’s worth of musical experience. Django and Jimmie is the 6th collaboration for Willie and Merle, and comes 32 years after their critically acclaimed record, Pancho and Lefty. It reignites the musical chemistry the two legends share.
Both legends have had long, successful solo careers. Mr. Haggard first entered the country music scene in the early 1960s. Some of his best known songs are “Mama Tried”, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “Okie From Muskogee.” Along with Buck Owens, Haggard is credited with creating the Bakersfield sound. Among his many accomplishments (besides being a beloved legend) are 19 ACM awards, 6 CMA awards, 3 Grammy awards, and inductions on both the Country Music and the Nashville Songwriters Halls of Fame.
Mr. Nelson has had an equally polarizing and successful career. He started out as a songwriter writing hits that include Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, but soon found fame as a singer himself. The critical success of the album Shotgun Willie (1973), combined with the critical and commercial success of Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, made Nelson one of the most recognized artists in country music. His relaxed, behind-the-beat singing style with his nasal voice has played a key role in making him an icon and one of the most easily recognized voices in music. Among his many achievements are 11 Grammy awards, 7 AMAs, 9 CMA awards, 5 ACM awards, and inductions into the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the National Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Django and Jimmie is named for Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers, and was recorded in just 3 days, which is a testament to Willie and Merle’s professionalism, experience, and talent. Helmed by Nelson’s long time producer, collaborator and friend Buddy Cannon, the album premieres 14 new studio recordings. Nelson and Haggard sound the same as they’ve always sounded, maybe even better, more seasoned. They’re both at the top of their game.
The album opens with the dual tribute to Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and country music’s mythic Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers. The song reflects on both men’s musical legacies and lasting influence, set to the tune of a cowboy waltz. Willie and Merle explain, “There might not have been a Merle or a Willie, If not for Django and Jimmie.” The Mexican horn flavored “It’s All Going To Pot”, is a tongue-in-cheek number saluting the booming marijuana culture. The duo sings, “Well it’s all going to Pot/ Whether we like it or not/ Best I can tell/ The World’s gone to Hell/ And we’re all gonna miss it a lot,” on this Willie-worthy track. Written by rising songwriters Marla Cannon-Goodman (Buddy Cannon’s daughter) and Ward Davis, “Unfair Weather Friend” is a ready-made classic. The Pancho & Lefty-esque number is truly a beautiful song.
The Haggard penned “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a fun tribute to the legendary Man in Black himself, which features Bobby Bare’s vocals. The talk and sing style makes you feel like you’re in the room with the three men, while they’re sharing stories. The song has a chicka boom classic sound to it that really makes it flow. They each sing a few verses on the Man in Black and swap choruses. Merle starts it off with his part of the tribute, “Well Johnny Cash was a friend of mine/ Knew him well for a mighty long time/ Shared the stage for many a show/ Broke my heart to see him go/ Cash had the fire of a thousand men/ Lovin’ life was his greatest sin/ Treated his fans like the next of kin/ Rappin’ a bit, talkin’ trash/ Missin’ Ol’ Johnny Cash.” Willie goes on to sing, “He wrote his songs from deep within/ And he hit the stage with a crooked grin/ He and I were both Highwaymen/ And that record became a smash/ Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash.” Towards the end of the song, the men share some hilarious stories about the stunts Cash pulled. At one point when asked if he knew anything about Cash, Willie replies, “Well Yeah, I know a lot of things about Cash/ I’m not sure if I should talk about it/ But I checked with John to see if it was ok and he said he didn’t give a sh!t,” and proceeds to tell a funny story involving a casket. It’s a really enjoyable song.
The reflective “Live This Long”, finds the two legends looking back over the years and all the ups and downs. Willie reflects on living the night life, wild women, and being paid for having too much fun. Merle concludes, “But we’re in pretty good shape Will, for the shape we’re in.” They agree that they would “have taken much better care of ourselves if we’d have known we was gonna live this long.” Meanwhile, the duo’s reinterpretation of the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” is absolutely superb. They really made the song their own, proving that Willie and Merle can take on any material, while the beautifully melancholy “Where Dreams Come to Die”, is a stunning track guaranteed to be a classic.
Haggard pays homage to his partner in crime, with the Willie Nelson classic “Family Bible”. The piano and organ give the track a churchy sound, with the harmonica adding a touch of flavor. Merle sings this song like it’s his own. This is what country music is folks! Absolutely beautiful! It’s Willie’s turn to pay homage to best friend Merle, in the Haggard classic “Somewhere Between”. Nelson carries the song off so well, that you almost forget that it’s Merle’s original song and not Nelson’s. The track features beautiful guitar work and an excellent vocal performance by Nelson, as usual.
The harmonica-driven “Driving the Herd” is a modern day cowboy song, because no Willie/Merle record is complete without one! The album finally concludes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”. It’s a tribute song that hints around to the listener that each artist might be singing about the other. The chorus, “He’s the only man wilder than me/ Some call me a sinner/ I’d call him a winner”, finds one legend singing the “sinner” part and the other answering back with the “winner” part. The legends swap lines and the lead throughout the song. It’s the perfect way to end a perfect album!
There is no doubt in my mind that this album will do exceedingly well in sales. Will it get airplay on mainstream country radio? Definitely not, as they don’t play real country anymore. It’s a crying shame that legends such as Haggard and Nelson, the very same legends that paved the way for Country music today, can’t get radio airplay. When you examine the kind of material that mainstream artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line are putting out and hold it up to the material Nelson and Haggard are putting out, there’s a whole chasm of difference! Bryan and Florida Georgia Line have only been in this business for a few short years, yet they seem to have run out of good material already (okay well FGL didn’t have good material to start with).
Meanwhile, Haggard and Nelson have been in this business, cumulatively, for over a century, yet they haven’t run out of excellent material yet. That just goes to show you what it takes to have long lasting success: real talent and artistry. But at least we still get to enjoy albums from these wonderful legends! And here’s hoping for at least a few more!
To sum it up: Just go get yourself a copy of this record, you’ll thank me later!