One of those seemingly pointless singles that exist for…what reason? To promote the latest album, Best Troubador? To throw in a jukebox maybe? The a-side is the album track as is, while the b-side is the bonus here, and actually, it’s very good, though upon listening to both Merle Haggard’s and Tommy Collins’s versions, it seems Oldham decided to dispense with the interlude and end the song immediately after the chorus. i.e. before we even reach the two minute mark. On top of that, this 45 comes in generic white sleeve, but still, there’s something cute about 45s. They seem so out of date, so anachronistic and quaint that you’ve gotta love ’em.
Leonard… first appeared on Haggard’s 1980 album, Back To The Barrooms, and was released on 45 in 1981. It’s a tribute to the songwriter Tommy Collins, real name Leonard Raymond Sipes. The song recalls the life of Collins as a young troubadour arriving in California, writing songs, getting famous, and then tripping up on the usual trappings of success—drugs and religion. The lyrics by Haggard are a straight enough tale without any attempts at deeply perceptive ambiguity. After singing about “Leonard,” he even says at one point, “Really, I’m not trying to hide his showname,” but, “somehow I had to write a song for old Tommy.” The details about Tommy/Leonard’s life are described in general terms, giving the song a sentimental vibe, and so, lacking any real insights, it seems like a throwaway tune. We learn that Leonard came to California at age 21, that he achieved a gold record, that he followed Elvis, then replaced Elvis with Jesus, and then got deeper into “pills and booze.” Mainly this song exists as a token of appreciation because Leonard taught Merle “how to write a country song / And he even brought around a bag of groceries.” A bromance in the making. The song opens with a quick kickbeat, and flute warbling jauntily behind Oldham’s singing. Oldham keeps his singing light and country, none of that quirky weird stuff. The song is easy to like, but it’s also easy listening. There’s a nice touch in the middle of the song when the rhythm stops and Oscar Parsons sings behind and a little out of time with Oldham. Something about the flute and speed and light guitar suggest to me that the band know the song doesn’t really have much to offer beyond its tune. Standard country fare.
Carolyn… was written by Tommy Collins and given to Merle Haggard who recorded it with his band The Strangers. He released it as a b-side back in 1971 on a 7” single called “When The Feelin’ Goes Away.” Lyrically, “Carolyn” is quite the indictment on its titular character. It’s sung by a man addressing Carolyn, the wife of his friend. He lists reasons why a man might leave his wife and head off to a place like Vegas and flirt with loose women. The singer surmises loneliness might be the root cause but more likely it’s the result of him being treated bad at home. When your country’s caught up in a new feminist awakening with regular women’s marches and protests, there does seem something typically perverse about Oldham releasing a song in 2017 that berates a woman for treating her man so bad she drives him to gambling and whoring. This side also opens with a flittery jittery beat, but immediately the song sounds different to the a-side. Oldham sings far more like Oldham of olde—partly owing to the odd unrhymed meter of the lyric. It’s strange how he can lower something in his voice to that lightly bruised tone, and he immediately moves away from MOR country to a more disconcerting alternative register. As always, the b-side of the single is the true treat for fans. This has more impact, tis far more quirky and captivating than the a-side. But alas, after 100 seconds it’s all over. Dang that was short.
This is just promotional of course. I guess radio stations don’t use 45s anymore, so hard to say why this was turned into a physical product other than to milk collectors. Go here to see the full list of Bonnie Prince Billy releases on vinyl.