Monday, April 23, 2007

Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price: Last Of The Breed

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Picture, if you will, a lonely honky-tonk on the outskirts of town, a glow from inside draws you near as the sound of clinking beer bottles and laughter calls your name. As you get closer the music from jukebox becomes clearer, three legendary country baritones stand out and shine like the North Star leading you home. You step through the swinging doors, is it honky-tonk heaven? Do you have enough change for said jukebox? Or are you simply dreaming again of records that don’t exist, as I often do? Nope, it’s the sounds of two outlaws and a real survivor. It’s true my fellow followers of great honky-tonk hardwood floor heroes! Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price have come together for the first time and the result is Last Of The Breed, a collection of classic tunes made current and standing tall among the mountains of rabble called country music.

These three pillars of classic country music have been kicking this idea around for years but as always things turn up, schedules clash, and side projects are put aside. Finally the stars aligned and the three paths crossed in the spring of 2006. Producer Fred Foster quickly put together a jamming band of pros, including fiddle master Johnny Gimble. After only two days of everything and everyone being in place, the songs that would make it onto this killer collaboration were put down. The big three had it in mind to sing the songs that they all knew and liked, drawing inspiration from such names as Lefty Frizzell, (“Mom And Dad’s Waltz”) Floyd Tillman (“I Love You So Much It Hurts”), and cowboy crooner Gene Autry (“That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine”); Simple and to the point, it’s how these men operate and why we love them.

Twenty-two tracks over two CDs, and from the get-go these honky-tonk heavyweights hit hard. Opening with Bob Wills’ western swing classic “My Life’s Been A Pleasure,” these gentlemen take turns at the lead vocal chores while the Jordanaires do what they do best, smooth background vocals. This solid sender is the first of many that set the stride and had me up and two steppin’, taking me back to my mother’s kitchen where I learned to dance.

Other classic covers include Harland Howard’s hardwood floor standards “Heartaches By The Number” and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.” From Leon Payne they take on the lonesome rambler’s lament “Lost Highway” and the sweethearts’ ballad “I Love You Because.” We are also treated to a number from fellow outlaw Kris Kristofferson, who helps with lead duties and harmony vocals on his ultimate sinner’s question song, “Why Me Lord.”

Tapping from the well of more recent songwriters, we get two from Willie’s pal Cindy Walker: the quiet, tear-in-your-beer “Going Away Party” and the Hymn-inspired “Night Watch.” From Willie himself, we get the beautifully poetic “Back To Earth,” which finds Willie and Merle on a duet reminiscent of their work on Pancho And Lefty. And not to be left out Merle chimes in with the self-penned sinner’s prayer “Sweet Jesus.”

Last Of The Breed finds these three distinct voices in fine form, blending perfectly and as entertaining as ever. Each legend brings his own brand of magic to the microphone delivering flawless performances from the last of the original Honky-Tonk Heroes. The only voice missing is George Jones’. Truly these men are the Last Of The Breed, yet once in a while someone comes along and gives the world hope and lets us know that real men still sing in a timeless style, the way these gentlemen do. George Straight, Alan Jackson, and my personal favorite Dale Watson kept that flame alive and have passed it to the few newcomers brave enough to take it. These willing young artists have the power to keep the hardwood floors packed with people and to keep the sound of clinking beer bottles mixed with loud laughter ringing in our ears. And yes, some where on that floor will be Fantasma el Rey and his honky-tonk angel dancing a two-step. Thanks, Ma.