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Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price

Last of the Breed Volume 1

(Mercury; US: 20 Mar 2007; UK: 19 Mar 2007)

Easy listening country music

Has the news been depressing you lately? Everywhere you look things seem dark. The wars abroad grow deadlier. New political scandals continually emerge. Environmental degradation and global warming are a fact of life. Need to relax? Well, let me recommend a good old fashioned remedy: easy listening, country music made by the masters. Yes, that’s right. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price offer the somnolent styles of yesterday and today for your enjoyment.


This is soft classic country music made with no hard edges that hails from a post-World War II tradition that says the bombs may drop at any minute. We need a strong shot of normalcy and family values to hide behind. Our best defense is to insulate ourselves in thick layers of mellow, paste a pleasant smile on our faces and pretend there is nothing wrong. Even when love has gone bad, it’s understood that bad love has its own bittersweet pleasures.


Don’t misunderstand. These songs offer solace in hard times and heaven knows we can use them. Nelson, Haggard and Price have chosen a smooth selection of mostly classic tunes from their youth and earnestly present them in simple and traditional styles. Legendary countrypolitan producer Fred Foster (Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton) employs the traditional playing of former Texas Playboy fiddler Johnny Gimble and legendary Nashville steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, and then adds the sweet vocals of The Jordanaires, to provide a comfy background upon which the three lead singers take turns offering up layers of effortless vocals and fluffy harmonies. This works well on light fare like Floyd Tillman’s “I’ll Keep on Loving You” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”. The emotions expressed are just deep enough below the surface (“I’d fight the wars/ I’d do the chores” Nelson sweetly sings to his parents) to inform the listener that there is more going on than the mere words are saying: i.e. that is, in a case like the latter—it may be the end of the world, but I love you Ma and Pa.


The heavier songs don’t work as well for that very reason, especially the religious ones like Haggard’s “Sweet Jesus” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord”—despite Kristofferson himself singing back up vocals. While some may believe a simple faith is a good thing, it comes off as insincere when not sung with a strong passion. This may be a flaw of the genre. White gospel rarely works as successfully as black gospel (no matter what the color of the performer).


These three vocalists are old men. Perhaps taking it easy allows them to sing without hurting their vocal chords, The album was put together as a document for which the trio could go out together and tour. Individually, they each sound good. Nelson still injects his music with a playfulness that lets you know he’s smiling as he’s singing. Haggard lets the blues sounds curdle in his throat before bringing them to the surface as if he’s reflecting on what his saying before letting it out. Price, the oldest of the bunch, romantically croons in a melancholy way that bespeaks a life singing in honky tonks before they were considered cool by the masses. The trio’s harmonies reveal their different palettes, but also show they are all singing in pastels. No one boldly stands out above the rest, but instead they allow their voices to blend together.


Nelson, Haggard, and Price may truly be among the last of their breed (Haggard, at 70 years of age is the youngest man here). They do a fine job of creating a gentle album to help one rest and relax. The only thing is that all three singers have reputations as hell raisers, although to be fair, each one has also made several acclaimed albums of softer music. Still, it’s a shame they are not covering the rough and rowdy side of country here. Maybe that will happen on the next disc in the set. This double CD 22-track set is labeled “Volume 1” and as such promises a sequel. Let’s hope the next one is a wilder ride.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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