Forget the madness that is happening in the mainstream for a second and just appreciate what a blessed time it is to be a country music fan. While we’re able to enjoy the amazing country artists of today—folks like Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan, and so many more—and we still have many greats from the past still making relevant music like Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, and Lee Ann Womack, we also still live in a time when some of the artists that were right there when country music was really coming into its own still around and making relevant music.
Willie Nelson wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for crying out loud. Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958 and hung out with Roy Nichols and Rose Maddox in Bakersfield. And here we are talking about an album they have released together over 55 years later with original songs and artistic importance.
You look at these two guys, and it is living history right in front of you. But they aren’t living history museum pieces. They are lucid, active participants in the music community, still writing and singing songs, still with the fire inside them to contribute to the genre they helped create, and pay country music forward to yet another generation of loyal and appreciative fans. There’s a better than average chance this new album from Willie and Merle will hit #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart when it’s all is said and done, besting a younger major label artist in Billy Currington. Willie & Merle aren’t out to pasture, they’re still riding high in the saddle.
In the late 90’s into the 2000’s, you wondered if the world would forget about Willie and Merle. Now they’re revered as national treasures by both young and old. Willie’s partnership with Sony’s catalog imprint Legacy has been a lucrative one, and launched a prolific era for Willie later in life that has revitalized his career, and created a new commercial importance to his name. The partnership has worked so well because with each release, there’s a reason to pay attention: putting out one of his best albums in years with Heroes, dueting with a daunting list of debutantes on To All The Girls…, and now pairing up with his old running buddy Merle.
Named for their respective #1 musical heroes, Django & Jimmie isn’t really music inspired by Gypsy guitar player Django Renihardt and the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers. There are no songs written or originally performed Jimmie or Django on the album, and aside from the title track, they’re not referenced in the songs. It’s more about these two deceased heroes being the greatest inspirations to Willie and Merle on a personal level, and this is Willie and Merle’s tribute to them in name. As they say in the title track, “There might not have been a Merle or a Willie, if not for a Django & Jimmie.”
This duet album starts off strong. The title track is witty and warm, and “It’s All Going to Pot” is quite fun. Yes, Saving Country Music has taken the point in complaining the Willie Nelson is becoming a pot punchline, and it’s not particularly savory to see Merle get sucked into that approach either. But all that aside, the song is enjoyable to listen to.
But the best song on the album might be the ballad “Unfair Weather Friend.” Exquisitely-written, and the perfect context for a Willie & Merle duet, this was the type of moment you were hoping for when word came down the old friends were pairing for an album once again.
There are a few really good songs here that will be worthy additions to the “best of” lists of both men, and though they’re officially rehashes, it’s cool to get a version of “Swinging Doors” and “Family Bible” with the two country icons together. But there are a few songs that hold the work back slightly as a whole. “Alice in Hulaland” and “Driving The Herd” had difficulty working as songs. “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” was entertaining, but “It’s Only Money” may have been one silly song too many.
And even though the first three tracks (“Django & Jimmie,” “It’s All Going to Pot,” and “Unfair Weather Friend”) are excellent, it was a little disappointing to peek into the liner notes and see none of these written by Willie or Merle, despite the personal-feeling nature of the material.
The cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is solid, and culturally significant in the face of the (very slight) “feud” between Merle and Dylan recently. “Where Dreams Come To Die” was also a standout, and showed Willie can still pen excellent material now into his 80’s.
At the end I was left a little wanting for some more poignant moments, maybe because of the heights this duo has reached in the past with “Pancho & Lefty,” or even with “Unfair Weather Friend.” I could have dealt with a few more serious songs and kept the lighthearted ones more as palette cleansers. This may be one of those albums that you pick a few really good songs from and ditch the rest. Time is also apparent in the two men’s voices, though the effort feels genuine.
But you will still cherish Django & Jimmie because it’s still Willie and Merle, together. These are the moments we should take in with an open heart and revel in now, because eventually the oldest generation will give way to a newer one, and the newer ones will never be a worthy replacement for country music titans such as these two.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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