There’s nothing sentimental, maudlin, or nostalgic about Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s new release Django and Jimmie. It is without a doubt the best of the three major albums the pair of old friends have released as a duo. The results of 1983’s Pancho & Lefty and 1987’s Seashores of Old Mexico were less collaborations than they were solo artists coming together to share album space, their hit-song version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” notwithstanding, and even that revered hit finds Haggard arriving near the song’s end.
However, Django and Jimmie finds both singer-songwriters well into life’s sunset years, still creatively active and with enough time on their hands to connect in the studio. This album fulfills the potential of built-in expectations in a truly authentic way. Too often, in the past, the teaming of two legendary artists may look good in theory, but the results are disappointing. Not so with Django and Jimmie. Additionally, this album extends both Haggard and Nelson’s active recording careers, adding to their seemingly endless legacy. In the end, though, it’s all in good fun, with no trace of mortal gloom or complaints about the perils of growing old. Mortality and aging are more like would-be pit stops they pass, as these two cruise along life’s highway at a steady speed. There’s no slowing down in sight for these partners of the road. At least, for a while longer, they seem to be outrunning the inevitable passing of time. It’s a good thing when they make albums this good.
Here, they open the door on sessions that include new songs written specifically for them. These are originals, classic revivals of past songs, and one nod to Bob Dylan with a version of his “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”
All heroes have their own heroes. The first track frames the proceedings, conjuring up the image of two of their personal musical heroes — Django Reinhardt for Willie and Jimmie Rodgers for Merle. Written by Jimmy Melton and Jeff Prince, the refrain is inevitable and carries more than a small degree of truth: “Might not have been a Merle or Willie if not for Django and Jimmie.”
By now, most fans have heard the heavily previewed, “It’s All Going to Pot,” written by producer Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson, and Ward Davis. It is a novelty song that finds Haggard and Nelson chucking along on their familiar cannibas road — you can almost hear them take deep inhales from their communal joint.
“Unfair Weather Friend,” by Marcia Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, sings to the virtues of a life-long friendship and adds a nice dimension to the meaning and purpose of this album. “Missing Ole Johnny Cash,” written by Haggard with an appearance by Bobby Bare, completely fulfills the potential of its title, ending with a few choice stories by all three friends of the Man in Black. It also should be noted, Haggard gets his turn at providing a pretty good impression Johnny.
“Live This Long,” by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, pulls its hook from a quote by 1920s ragtime artist Eubie Blake: “We’d taken better care of ourselves if we knew we were gonna live this long.” This one is a poignant song performed with great heart by both artists. Nelson and Buddy Cannon’s “It’s Only Money,” “Driving the Herd,” and especially the excellent “Where Dreams Go To Die,” continue a collaboration that has yielded two classic new solo albums by Nelson.
Haggard provides the newly written “Missing Ole Johnny Cash” (mentioned above) and “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” which offers a fresh taste of classic Haggard songwriting with lyrics that may pay tribute to Nelson. Two of Haggard’s best-loved songs, “Somewhere Between” and “Swinging Doors,” provide the honky-tonk country energy both artists once made famous, decades ago. The magic of these remakes is — and the same can be said of the entire album — that it all sounds fresh and new, as though two much younger artists had discovered this fine musical chemistry.
The strength of this album is how well it demonstrates that two veteran artists, who could easily, justifiably rest on their laurels, have released a collection that honors both of their legacies while bringing together a warm collaboration between two of the most enduring artists in country music today.