Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s first album together, and their most commercially successful to date, was titled Pancho and Lefty, in 1983. The new one, essentially their sixth, has a similar format to its title: Django and Jimmie. Although the title track is no enigmatic classic like the Townes Van Zandt song, it’s more of a chance for two legends to reminisce about their musical influences. The tone they take is tender, humble even while quietly self-aggrandizing. Like, Yes, we’re legends, but we bow down before the legends who inspired us. “There might not have been a Merle or Willie / if not for Django and Jimmie.” There’s a slight pause right before “…or a Willie” that’s easy to miss but loaded with meaning — a phrasing thing, the way Nelson stretches out his delivery, but also an introduction to a star’s name. The song’s smartness carries into the way it tries to emulate the ease and clarity of the two past legends, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers (of course), while also carrying the similar but different traits of Nelson and Haggard.
That’s where Django and Jimmie lies, in the intersection between resting on your laurels and having a fun time with new songs and old. On the whole, it’s front-porch music, with a nostalgic tone but also a lighthearted one. It’s very self-referential but also carries that in-the-moment sort of presence, like you’re witnessing a jam session between friends. They sing together, while Nelson plays guitar and his band provides the rest; everyone sounding like they’re having a ball.
There are a lot of looking-back touchpoints. They do a classic Merle song (“Swinging Doors”) and a classic Willie song (“Family Bible”). There’s a song looking back on their friend Johnny Cash (“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”); they also work in a reference to him on the title track. There’s a Bob Dylan song (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, which is starting to feel like the Dylan cover of choice for country singers) and one about a hippie fan/possible groupie (“Alice in Hulaland”) that references Hawaii and has a nice tropical feeling about it.
And there’s “It’s All Going to Pot”, kind of a novelty song but also a cranky, ‘world’s gone to hell’ one, featuring wordplay and pot. That song, the album’s ostensible hit single, was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell, and features Johnson for a moment, doing his best Waylon (or his best Johnson, I suppose).
Buddy Cannon is the other presence here worth mentioning, easily overlooked. He co-wrote four of the songs, and produced the album. If you haven’t noticed, that makes it, by my count, the seventh Willie Nelson album Cannon has produced in the last seven years. That started with 2008’s Moment of Forever, for my money one of Nelson’s classic late-career albums, an unrecognized masterpiece. That album had a focus to the sound, a deceptively relaxed setting that was actually full and atmospheric, doing a lot with apparent minimalism, and it captured Nelson’s singing voice and guitar playing clearly and well. Those qualities have carried through the other albums, some of which feel like larks — the duets album To All the Girls…, the throwback Let’s Face the Music and Dance — but none of which should be treated as ‘just another Willie Nelson album’. Nelson is in the thick of his “Buddy Cannon era”, and it’s been a great run. Django and Jimmie fits right into the sound, style and quality of those albums.
There’s a clear perspective to the album, one that hits a very particular place between carefree fun and longing for the past. For all the goofiness and playing around, there’s an immaculate sadness to songs like the lovelorn “Somewhere Between” and the end-of-the-line “Where Dreams Come to Die”. That song, a chronicle of the downtrodden that doubles as a religious number about eternity, shares a sense of here-I-am-in-this-moment feeling with the song “Live This Long”. That one carries in its lyrics some knowing jokes about the “outlaw” lifestyle that at least Nelson, and perhaps occasionally Haggard, is slotted into. “We’d have taken much better care of ourselves / if we’d have known we was gonna live this long”, they sing.
That song and the album play off the personas of these two living legends. The album ends on a note like that, with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me” (as in, “He’s the only man wilder than me”). Yet the album also hits on touchpoints between them that feel natural and synchronous. Comfort is the way here, but there’s also an ongoing obsession with age, the passing of time and the surprises that come with it.