Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie

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Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
Django and Jimmie
(Sony Legacy)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

These two ageing journeymen country music outlaws have a long history together, first joining for 1983’s successful Poncho & Lefty release, and on occasional tours and projects since. The results have ranged from pretty good to pretty great. But even if there aren’t any surprises on this reunion of the grizzled twosome, it’s still a joy to hear the two of them trade vocals on a thoroughly enjoyable set of 14 songs.

Nelson, who typically sounds as worn and weary as his famous, tattered guitar Trigger, raises his laconic game. Likewise, Haggard is in fine form and the easy going shared energy between them makes this a welcome addition to their individual bulging catalogs.

The opening title track, seemingly written expressly for this project by Jimmy Melton and Jeff Prince, is a tribute to Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Both are influences on the two legends with the former jazz guitarist a particular favorite of Nelson. They also pay respects to Bob Dylan with a sweet upbeat version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and former Nelson Highwayman band member Johnny Cash on Haggard’s self-explanatory “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash.”

Nelson’s longtime producer Buddy Cannon is as much of the project as the two stars. He wrote or co-authored five tracks and his daughter penned the lovely “Unfair Weather Friend,” one of the disc’s most intimate moments. Thankfully he keeps the approach rootsy, loose and homey with a great backing band that leaves plenty of room for Haggard and Nelson to feed off each other. While nothing here is likely to be as definitive in their legacy as 1983’s Townes Van Zandt cover, the album is consistently delightful with tunes like Haggard’s ballad “Somewhere Between,” Nelson/Cannon co-writes “Driving the Herd” and the swinging, jazzy “It’s Only Money” all rugged gems you’ll find yourself returning to.

The sense of mortality from these elder statesmen is both explicit in the lyrics and implied in relaxed performances that never feel forced or stiff. Neither has anything left to prove but the utter joy and comradery on display makes you hope this isn’t their final collaboration.