The album name overstates the case a little. Last time I checked the entertainment obituaries, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, and Charlie Louvin were still around (the octogenarian Charlie with a great new album, at that). So Last of the Breed, the title of the new 2-CD collaboration between Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price isn’t entirely accurate. But why quibble? The fact is that these three grizzled amigos represent the best of a brand of country music that hasn’t really been in vogue since the Reagan administration, before Garth Brooks discovered wireless mics and Shania Twain figured out how to charge people to watch aerobics classes.
What Nelson, Haggard, and Price can do is sing, and even at their relatively advanced ages they can still swoop down to nail a bass note so soul-shatteringly lonesome and blue that you will want to start drinking hard liquor again even if you’ve sworn off the stuff. This is 180-proof honky-tonk hokum, full of Jesus and mama and old lovers who are nothing but gone, and if you can get past the schmaltz factor, what you will discover is that it touches on universal hopes and fears. You don’t need to be a hardcore country music fan to appreciate this music. You just need to have a heartbeat.
Twenty of the twenty-two songs here are about as old as the participants. Well, okay, not quite, but Harlan Howard and Lefty Frizzell were writing most of these classics in the ‘50s, and songs like “Heartaches by the Number” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways” would have sounded just as good and just as true in 1907 as they do in 2007. Age hasn’t diminished Willie or Merle one bit, and if Ray Price sounds a little frayed around the edges, that only adds to the poignancy of these sad, sad songs. Nashville old schoolers like pedal steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons and fiddler Johnny Gimble are around to lend their musical expertise. And the Jordanaires, seemingly missing in action since the death of Elvis, drop by to lend their trademark gospel quartet harmonies.
But mostly there is Willie. And Merle. And Ray. I don’t mean to be morbid, but if Johnny and June teach us anything, they teach us that this breed, regardless of their number, won’t last forever. So enjoy them while we’ve got them, still at or near the peak of their powers, still making radically unhip, out-of-time music. And try to avoid the liquor store on the way back from the record shop.