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Question: What do the new albums by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Dale Watson, and Richard Thompson have in common besides a deep connection to the roots from which their performers first sprouted?
Answer: a humble willingness to pay homage to the giants on whose shoulders they’ve long stood and whose legacies they’re still extending.
On the title cut Django and Jimmie (Legacy), Nelson and Haggard remember the gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, concluding that without them “there might not have been a Merle or Willie.” In “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” they and Bobby Bare reminisce about the Man in Black, borrowing Cash’s famous “chick-a-boom” rhythm, name-checking his greatest hits, and trading salty quips about his wilder side.
Watson pays similar tribute to George Jones on Call Me Insane (Red House). Like Nelson and Haggard’s Cash song, “Jonesin’ for Jones” is set to one of its subject’s famous beats (“White Lightning”) and rife with greatest-hits references. Driving the sincerity home is Watson’s Jones-like phrasing, albeit transposed into a baritone range.
Thompson’s Still (Fantasy) qualifies for inclusion by virtue of its concluding track, the eight-minute “Guitar Heroes.” Coming in for praise are—in order of appearance—Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, and The Shadows’ Hank Marvin, all of whom get a verse in which Thompson recreates their respective styles well enough to belie his insistence that he “still [doesn’t] know how [his] heroes did it.”
Yet, as touchingly entertaining as these songs are, they’re not even the best cuts on the albums on which they appear.
The burden-sharing camaraderie achieved by Nelson and Haggard, for instance, who are still plenty reliable individually, takes on a life of its own, allowing them to relax enough to make their search for permanence in the face of an ever-changing world as funny as quixotic resignation can be. Their revisitation of “Family Bible” is straightforward, but “It’s Only Money,” “Live This Long,” and the double-entendre-enriched “It’s All Going to Pot” put wry, serpentine spins on wisdom that should be more conventional than it is.
And their far-from-throwaway version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a reminder that Nelson and Haggard are themselves giants on whose shoulders musicians younger than they (if only a little in Dylan’s case) have stood and still stand.
That Dale Watson is one of those musicians is well-known to anyone who’s followed his two decades of masterly, if underappreciated, recordings. The songs that link him most overtly to the Nelson-Haggard tradition this time are “Everybody’s Somebody in Luchenbach, Texas” (the setting of a hit by Waylon Jennings) and “Mama, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” (a play on the title of a chart-topping Nelson-Jennings duet that will give helicopter parents fits).
The song that suggests that Watson himself treasures a family Bible is “Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky Tonk.” “I read in the Good Book,” he sings, “that heaven is a place / that the only thing we’ll have is all we want,” and “Celestial beer is served, / you’ll get high just on the Word.” You’ve heard of stumbling heavenward? Watson obviously has too.
As for Richard Thompson’s Still, it’s an even stronger collection of songs for song’s sake than his 2013 album Electric. The ancient British-folk echoes that have long infused his work enrich dramatic mini-narratives, and he sings and plays them like a man with lots left to prove.
At 66, he might even be peaking.