All the whiskey in the world wouldn’t run as smooth or be as replenishing as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard‘s latest (and sixth) collaborative full player called Django and Jimmie. As two of the most prolific singer-songwriter Outlaws in country music history, there’s a level of expectation that comes from such a release. Both have well-documented recordings that have broken major ground for the format; every single aspiring vocalist (male or female) owes their career, in part, to the work of Haggard and Nelson. As a response to the polished Nashville Sound of the time, they ushered in a reinvigorated movement that has beginnings as far back as the ’50s (later coming to prominence in the late ’60s and ’70s), likewise supported by Johnny Cash (also a central figure on the new project), Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe and Kris Kristofferson, among others. With the mainstream market ever in the crosshairs these days and lampooned for seemingly abandoning tradition, Nelson and Haggard come along to remind us (once again) what earth-shattering stories really sound like.
Paying tribute to two equally talented legends and their own childhood idols, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers (often referred to as the Father of Country Music and the first notable “superstar” of the genre), Django and Jimmie reads as a confessional. Coming 32 years after their first Pancho and Lefty project (in 1983), the new album is laced with as much wisdom and contemplative fire as they can muster. Their musicality and vocal choices are more seasoned now, from years of toiling in a fickle industry which complacently discards artists after a certain age. But what is especially breathtaking is the grit, passion and ghostly phrasing hasn’t been completely lost through time. There’s only a far more ripe and cynical edge, as found on their lead-in and cheeky “It’s All Going to Pot.” Haggard and Nelson’s voices are weathered, and as they reminisce about the past, the listener is taking through a time portal: seeing country in a way they never have before, with absolutely little sadness and no ounce of regret. They bask in their age, which becomes a through line on Django and Jimmie, too, particularly on “Live This Long” and the bittersweet “This is Where Dreams Come to Die.” Elsewhere they revive Haggard’s own “Swinging Doors” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” as well as the old-time standard “Family Bible.” By bringing the music full circle, they cherish those memories through the lens of fame, fortune and understanding.
Devastating as the industry can be, they haven’t lost their creative souls. The title track is an ode to their musical heroes, while the breezy island “Alice in Hulaland,” the jangly “Driving the Herd” and the swinging “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” relinquish their storyteller sensibilities with a sweeping groove—credit to producer Buddy Cannon on bringing out a powerful flame to scorch the earth anew. This far into their respective careers, there could be a belief that the material might suffer from lapsing judgement, but Django and Jimmie stands tall beside their most beloved material (Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” Hag’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” most notably). The bluesy and often melancholy portrayal of life, love and loss is a shock to the heart. “You can’t turn back time or put more sand in the glass,” Nelson advises on the red-dirt title track, settling into the ethereal atmosphere right out of the gate. They don’t look out at the fading sunset with sorrow in their faces, instead the light bounces off their eyes with an assured and resting peace. “Unfair Weather Friend” is like a final farewell to their history, as they ride off into the horizon, knowing all too well that time is of the essence. It beats down as hard and as persistent as a driving rain. They later hit the honky-tonk rodeo with “It’s Only Money,” the ballroom with the waltz “Somewhere Between” and the closer “The Only Man Wilder Than Me.”
If you close your eyes as you listen, you can see a projector of their impressive careers flash across the whitewashed backdrop. Their voices are the vivid images, often calamitous, jarring, emotional, gut-wrenching. But their lyrics lap up from the sea and fly away like an eagle into the wind. They’re right where they’ve always been, on the edge of life-affirmation and hope and self-assurance. They don’t shy away from offering up stark reality, but their presence is comforting. It makes aging far less dismal of an experience and far more welcoming.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Django and Jimmie,” “Family Bible,” “Live This Long,” “This is Where Dreams Come to Die,” “Unfair Weather Friend”
Image Source: Sony