First Impressions: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Django and Jimmie”

django and jimmieBefore Django and Jimmie I might have told you there was no such thing as an album about time that wasn’t actually an album about death, but I’ll be damned if this one doesn’t count its combined years—more than 80 for Willie, nearly 80 for Merle—with real warmth and acceptance, its greatest virtue a palatable, easygoing sense of friendship and mutual pleasure that I can’t imagine coming from a duo less seasoned. They don’t fetishize mortality nor even really address it: They may be “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” but their remembrances don’t fade into sepia; they’re more interested in keeping the Man in Black myth alive and perhaps adding a few of their own stories to the canon, Willie at one point balking at sharing a particular anecdote but then calling Johnny himself—presumably up in heaven somewhere—who assures us that he don’t give a shit. The song is big-hearted and smartassed, and a more vibrant tribute to Cash than most any of his own moribund Rick Rubin recordings. Willie and Merle also find time to hit the honky-tonk hard on a “Swinging Doors” revival, they tackle Dylan with real affection—their “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is less barbarous than his, less about pushing forward than accepting what’s already been done—and they dip into gospel a bit on “Family Bible,” which is, it may be worth noting, pretty much a solo Merle number. There are a couple of songs about weed, which speaks volumes about the spirit of this record. “It’s All Going to Pot,” the one you know, is funny, but not as funny as “It’s Only Money,” which makes you think it’s a divorce song but kills with a great Willie punchline at the end. They burn through a couple of twangy country-blues numbers but are mostly content to let things drift along at their own leisurely gait, perhaps a bit too leisurely on “Where Dreams Come to Die,” which isn’t as charming as the warm and hazy “Unfair Weather Friend.” The album title nods to the pair’s formative influences, but this is no more a return-to-roots record than it is a last will and testament. It’s the sum of their years, and like any great outlaw album it manages to sound tough despite being frequently sentimental; also, it’s got all the jokes it needs. Its best reveal isn’t the one about the jazz-playing gypsy and the singing brakeman; it’s the one where they express mild surprise that they got to “Live This Long,” and say they would have taken much better care of themselves if they had only known, though this doesn’t seem to involve smoking any less weed, nor should it. Willie and Merle savor their long life here without getting stuck in the past; they know they won’t live forever but don’t have the time or patience to dwell on that fact: They’ve got songs still to sing.

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