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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Django and Jimmie – 2015 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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CDs by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

There's nothing quite so affecting as witnessing the reunion of two old friends. It's been over 20 years since road warriors Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard joined forces for their epic collaboration "Pancho & Lefty" and set the standard for several all-star pairings to come. This time around, the two pay homage to some of the musicians that preceded them - jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and the whistling railway man, country musician Jimmie Rogers - as well as old pal, partner and iconoclastic outlaw Johnny Cash. Mostly though they reference each other, sharing asides with seeming spontaneity. It's a case of mutual respect and rapport that's indeed extraordinary.

With some sparring and plenty of synchronicity as a starting point, "Django and Jimmie" is already a sure shot for success, even if the two sometimes seem more intent on retracing former glories than in plowing a path ahead. Indeed, the Cash tribute, "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," reveals as much about the two of them - and special guest Bobby Bare - as it does about the legendary Man in Black himself. (Although the anecdote about Cash planting himself in a coffin and surprising room service in a London hotel does provoke a chuckle or two.)

For the most part, the album rolls along like a kind of inside joke, one in which listeners are invited to observe and happily listen in. The jaunty "Live This Long" is a case in point, its refrain providing the song with its pithy punch line ("We'd have taken much better care of ourselves if we had known we were going to live this long.") Naturally, there's plenty of whimsy as well - "It's All Going to Pot" and "Alice in Hulaland" being the most irreverent and uproarious examples. Apparently Merle's anti-substance stance - as vented in the immortal "Okee from Muskogee" - is now a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, it's inevitable that age brings reflection, and with it, no small share of sentiment. Their take on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," ranks among the most moving interpretations this great song's ever received. The original numbers are similarly circumspect, most sounding like instant standards. One can learn a lot from two guys who have circled the sun so frequently. Not surprisingly then, "Django and Jimmie" provides an ideal example of the wisdom that comes with age, even when irreverence gets in the way.