It’s no surprise that bassist Charlie Haden would make an album of the old-time country music he grew up on; the surprise is that it took so long. Rambling Boy brings aboard Haden’s wife, children, screwball actor/son-in-law Jack Black and pop and country singers to perform old and new songs in gentle traditional style—not a hint of jazz. Overlook that: It’s gorgeous.
Vocal assignments rotate between guests, with solid performances from Rosanne Cash (“Wildwood Flower”) and Elvis Costello (“You Win Again”), but its captains are Haden’s triplet daughters, Petra, Tanya and Rachel, singing solo or together on seven of the 19 tracks. Their three-part harmony sparkles on “Single Girl, Married Girl,” while Petra brings her soft alto to the heartbreaking “The Fields of Athenry.” Black (Tanya’s husband) also sings credibly, if goofily, on the hoedown “Old Joe Clark.” The band is the other core, with glorious solos from Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Pat Metheny, who takes a guitar spotlight on the weeper “Is This America? (Katrina 2005).”
As for Haden, he’s never been so restrained, sticking to the background with two-steps and threes- and fours-to-the-bar. The chops come out on Joe Allison’s “20/20 Vision,” coincidentally the best track: Haden’s in his element, carrying the melody alongside singer Bruce Hornsby (more emotional here than on his own records). Haden sings, too, closing the album with a whispery, haunting rendition of “Oh Shenandoah.” Rambling Boy may be an anomaly in his catalogue, but it’s a marvelous one.