Perhaps you heard the announcement– made some months ago– that the one-of-a-kind Joe Henry would be producing a record for kindred spirits Over the Rhine. By now, the album is finished, and forthcoming in the first part of the next year; my enthusiasm for the pairing hasn’t diminished a bit since the announcement was first made. If you know me, or have read my music reviews over the years, you know that Over the Rhine is one of my favorite bands of all time, and Henry one of my favorite producers. Not only that, but they seem to me like their spirits would prove to be perfectly complementary. For years, I’ve said that I hoped the two would one day collaborate.
And evidently, wishes do come true. And that got me thinking: If my Joe Henry/Over the Rhine wish can come true, maybe there are others that can come true, as well. So in that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten artists who I’d most like to see make albums under the watchful eye of Mr. Henry; let’s hope at least a few more of these dreams become reality.
(By way of disclaimer: Yes, I do think a Henry/Dylan pairing would be pretty cool, but I’ve left Bob off this list so that I can save him for my Jack White wishlist. I mean, can you imagine? Bob Dylan in full-on garage-rock mode, Jack at the controls and, possibly, Meg on the skins?)
10. The Roots
I’m pitching this one pretty low on the list for the simple reason that, frankly, I’m not sure that The Roots need the help right now; with ?uestlove at the helm, they’re doing the best work of their career. Still, Henry commented, years back, that he’d like to work with The Roots, and the prospect of him working in a soulful hip-hop idiom is tantalizing, while the thought of The Roots making their most laid-back, low-key and organic album yet– and with Henry at the helm, could it possibly be anything else?– has its merits as well.
09. Lucinda Williams
Frankly, she could use a little guidance these days.
08. Elvis Costello
I’m halfway cheating here; Henry technically has produced Costello, on the collaborative album he made with Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse. But I’d love to hear him make a concept-free solo album for Costello– intimate, loose, funny, without any of the pretensions or stiffness that have marked many of Costello’s recent works. In other words, a Momofuku with Jay Bellerose on drums.
07. Merle Haggard
Here’s a guy who seems right up Henry’s alley: An old voice who still has much to tell us, who’s still making albums that are funny and warm and wise and full of spark. Henry, I think, is just the man to coax a few new tricks out of Hag– to not only build on his legacy, but to truly expand it.
06. Sam Phillips
They already work with the same group of musicians. Might as well just make this one official.
05. Robert Plant
Robert Plant is increasingly consumed by the myths of the weird old Americana, and his work in this vein– with T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller– has yielded some fine results. Who better than Henry to take it to the next level– to marry the mystery and allure of Dreamland and Raising Sand with some of the old grit and muscle of the best Zeppelin albums?
04. Josh Ritter
I’m very much a fan of Ritter’s creative relationship with Sam Kassirer and the fine albums it’s wrought, but I increasingly wonder how Ritter would sound in a more spare, organic environment– say, with Joe Henry’s crack studio band behind him?
03. PJ Harvey
I love this lady’s voice, I love her songwriting, I love her risks– but oh, how sweet would it be to hear her work with a producer who restrains her from her indulgences and her baser instincts?
02. Elton John
His big comeback album is, reportedly, on the way, with T-Bone behind the wheel. An album with Joe Henry seems like the next logical step. It’s time for John to make mature, elegant albums like he used to make, and I suspect that Henry is just the man for capturing that old Tumbleweed Connection magic again.
01. Erykah Badu
Badu is, in my opinion, the finest soul singer working today– and I love the inspired weirdness she’s brought to her New Amerykah albums, as well as the R&B muscle of Mama’s Gun. But I think she has her most open-hearted, generous work yet to come: Something warm, in-the-moment, and improvisational. Something where the focus isn’t on the production, but solely on that voice, and on the songs. Get Joe at the controls and, perhaps, Bellerose and ?uestlove sharing drum duties, and I don’t see how it could be anything but an instant classic.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Merle Haggard is probably never going to enjoy a Johnny Cash-style comeback as an aging country veteran who suddenly appeals to the young and the hip. It’s not that he’s incapable; 72 years old and a recent cancer survivor, Haggard is in astonishingly fine voice, sounding weathered but robust, as in-control of his magnificent instrument as ever before. And as for songs—hell, the guy can write whatever he wants to. It’s just that, honestly, I don’t think he has even the slightest interest in making a “comeback,” or in reinventing himself as something more fashionable or iconic. He sounds like he’s simply having too much fun making the music he wants to make, as his recent string of laid-back gems suggests.
I Am What I Am, the latest and arguably greatest of these latter-period delights, is his first album since 1997’s The Bluegrass Sessions, and, as the title suggests, it’s a break from the genre exercise of that album and a return to making the kind of warm, traditional country he’s specialized in over the last ten or so years. In fact, you could almost interchange the title of this album with the title of his 2001 triumph Roots; on the one hand, this record is a simple statement of who Haggard is—now and always, as a musician and as a human being—but it’s also a celebration of, well, his roots: It pays homage to the pre-rock parlor songs and early forms of country that he grew up on, touches on the Texas swing of his early days, borrows some of the spirit of outlaw country, and ultimately leans heavily toward the casual, living-room country picking of albums like Roots and If I Could Only Fly. In other words, it’s an album that affirms the path he’s taken and revels in the place where it’s lead him, which is about as close to an American Recordings, back-to-basics record as Hag’s going to get.
Which is to say, not very. For one thing, Haggard has no interest in stripping his music to its very marrow the way Rick Rubin did those Johnny Cash albums, nor does he have any interest in obsessive morbidity; I Am What I Am is positively teeming with life, from its casual, spontaneous sound—the album was recorded in Haggard’s studio with his long-time band, and the sessions here are warm, informal, and laid-back, the chemistry between the musicians palpable and Hag sometimes shouting cues to his supporting tram—to its sometimes-obvious, sometimes-sly nods to the music he loves, be it in the old-timey country of “Oil Tanker Train” or the soft-shoe swing of the brassy “The Road to My Heart,” songs that bow affectionately toward the stuff he grew up on, to songs that winkingly reference his own status as a country legend, be it in the clever, mirror-image reworking of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” in “Bad Actor,” or in the impish celebration of the good life as symbolized by the Mariachi-flavored “Mexican Bands,” a song that wins bonus points for rhyming “manana” with “I’ll smoke what I wanna.”
But if music is one of the great loves of Haggard’s life, it still takes a back seat to his love for wife Theresa, who appears here as his duet partner in the terrific swing number “Live and Love Always” and who is sort of the unspoken muse of the record, which dwells in love songs that show Haggard to be a romantic to his core. He’s got plenty of piss and vinegar left in him yet, as the wearied cynicism of opener “I’ve Seen it Go Away” suggests, but that song fades gracefully into the sweet, new-love flush of “Pretty When It’s New,” an ode to innocence sung from a place of experience. And if Haggard indulges his sentimental side throughout the album—not only in love songs but in childhood flashbacks and a tender remembrance of his family’s long-time home—it’s a hard-won sentimentality, less about nostalgia than in looking back at a life well-lived.
Not that he’s finished living yet, of course. The title track, which ends the album, makes it clear that Haggard’s road hasn’t ended; he admits that he’s no longer an outlaw, but he is a “rambler” and a “seeker,” and though he’s comfortable being who he is he knows that his story isn’t over. I Am What I Am, then, may not be an ending, but it is a stirring and satisfying chapter, an album of simple pleasures from a legend who’s still making some of the finest music of his life.