NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Nelson, Haggard and Price Bring a Treasure

Last of the Breed Really Is Just That

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

After the first few times you play Last of the Breed, treasure these two CDs and take good care of them, because I have a feeling nothing like this is ever going to come along again. At least not in country music.

There will probably never again be three country artists of this towering magnitude and talent around to record together. Artists won’t be able to spend a lifetime developing their songwriting skills and their recording expertise and finesse at performing. These are truly the last of a breed. Not too much longer now and the sorts of bars and honky-tonks and dancehalls that shaped and nurtured these men and their music will no longer exist. I doubt we’ll ever see an American Idol: Last of the Breed, although in some ways, that’s an alluring idea.

In case you don’t know, Last of the Breed is a double-CD package by Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They’ve never sounded better. Well, technically, Haggard’s and Nelson’s voices have, but in terms of soulfulness, they have not. Ray Price has always been just about perfect and still is almost so at age 81. Combined age of these three: 205 years. Total number of songs written, recordings made and concerts played: a staggering if unimaginable total.

These are not swaggering 25-year-olds out to show off their stuff. These three old warriors don’t have to prove anything to anybody. They have just about done it all, seen it all and sung it all.

That’s part of the beauty of these seemingly effortless performances. By singing without ego, without any pride, without any sense of self getting in the way, all that is left and all that matters is the song.

Part of the beauty of these recordings is the complete absence of any of these artists’ hits: no greatest hits by Willie, Merle or Ray here (an exception being Ray’s hit “Heartaches by the Number,” although Harlan Howard wrote it). Just songs they admire by other songwriters, along with Haggard’s new “If I Ever Get Lucky” and Nelson’s new “Back to Earth.”

There’s some pretty amazing other talents on here, too. These 22 songs were produced by Fred Foster, who was instrumental in the early careers of Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson and produced all of Roy Orbison’s huge hits. Foster’s productions always produce a warm sound, which I love, like last year’s Foster-produced You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker by Nelson. Kristofferson himself is here, joining in on his song, “Why Me.” Vince Gill drops by to harmonize on “Heartaches by the Number.” Stellar steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and pre-eminent Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble lead the band. The Jordanaires throw in background vocals. Foster, Emmons, Gimble and the Jordanaires are themselves the last of a breed. Stubborn mavericks, who are united by a love of freewheeling, honest music. That was not an ideal world they lived in during the ’50s and ’60s. I know that, but it produced some music that remains timeless.

So are many of the songwriters represented here wrote for the sake of the song and not to curry favor with mainstream country radio. Oh, they had to do some of that. I’m not naïve enough to think that any era of country music was pure, but they also spun pure gold now and then. And most of the time, when they pitched songs, they kept those pieces of gold in the back of the drawer and saved them for the artists they deemed worthy of them.

Such songwriters as Harlan Howard, Cindy Walker, Floyd Tillman, Jesse Ashlock and Lefty Frizzell left a dazzling string of musical gems they offered to the likes of Willie, Merle and Ray. What a marvelous legacy.