Willie Nelson Merle Haggard Ray Price
Last Of The Breed
Sometimes the story is - there is no story.
Let's be clear: Last of the Breed is a story - actually, a novel, if not an epic - unto itself. The title sums it up pretty well: On these two discs three classic performers, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, band together on songs they've known and loved for years.
Their contributions don't need elaboration. Each is a legend. All three hark back to a time that's in some ways gone. When you consider the lives they've lived, the world that formed them as artists, and even the landscapes they knew as they began playing in beer joints and backwater clubs long ago, then the truth of those four words, Last of the Breed, comes clear.
Look a little closer, and they take on another reference, to the songs as well as to the giants who celebrate them here. Whether drawn from deep in the tradition, back from the well of Gene Autry, Lefty Frizzell, and Floyd Tillman, or picked from the more recent catalogs, this music conveys a feeling that might be mistaken for nostalgia but is in fact a timeless eloquence.
They don't write or sing 'em like this anymore.
And, yes, there's a story to tell, as to why music like this has become so rare. But as to the actual making of Last of the Breed, well, there was no angst, there were no hurdles or complications, of any kind. It couldn't have been simpler. Basically, they'd been talking for years about doing a tour together. Time passed, though, and other things kept coming up.
"Then we figured out that the best way to do a tour is to do an album first," Willie says. "So I contacted Fred Foster, who is a great producer, and he knew exactly who to call and what to do."
That was pretty much it, as far as pre-production, other than to agree that while they would pick their set just before rolling tape, each one would also bring something new that the others would learn and lay down.
And so, one morning in the early Spring of '06, everyone started ambling into the studio, greeting old friends in the band that Foster had assembled fiddler Johnny Gimble, steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons, the best of the Nashville best and finally getting around to deciding what to cut.
"We just sat down and talked about some of the great songs that we all knew," Ray explains. "And then we did them."
"The band was playing something when I walked into the studio," Merle adds. "When they got done, they said, 'Let's do "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down".' I went straight to the microphone and the three of us sang it through one time. And that was it."
"It was an easy album to do," Willie concludes.
So there you have it: The making of Last of the Breed is about as action-packed as a trip to the grocery store. It took all of two days to begin and end the project roughly the same time it takes some bands to pick their wardrobes before a gig.
Where, then, is the story? It's in what came before the sessions in the legacy and importance of this "breed." "With the exception of George Jones, we're really the only three who are still alive," Ray explains. "I've been making records since '48, and Willie and Merle have been at it a few years. So this record is really a history-making thing."
It takes time to reach this level of effortlessness. Listening to the trio interpret the poetic sentiments of Mickey Newberry's "Sweet Memories," or bring to life the last moments before salvation on "Why Me Lord" (with composer Kris Kristofferson joining in the harmony), or take us back to the honky-tonks for a dance-floor spin on "Pick Me Up Your Way Down" or one more round of heartbreak on "I Gotta Have My Baby Back," you know that you're hearing masters at work, doing what they do best.
They're just as compelling on the new tunes: Willie offers a song he wrote a year or so ago, "Back to Earth," which has already become a fixture in Merle's shows. Merle brought in a recent original too, "Sweet Jesus," recorded for the first time here.
"In a way, this album reminds me of doing Stardust," Willie says, "where we took a lot of the great songs of the past that young people had probably never heard. These are the same kinds of songs, from a long time ago. They meant a lot to people back then. All they really need is to be exposed so someone can hear them again, or for the first time."
With that, and with their upcoming tour backed by Asleep at the Wheel, Last of the Breed just may help open a door that's been closed for too long in American music. As Ray puts it, "This record bridges the gap, back to when country music was so great. Honestly, it could be the biggest record of Willie's, Merle's, or my careers, because people are dying to hear music like this again."
Now, that's a story...