Loudon Wainwright III’s career is proof that for those who stick around long enough, no label will suffice. His songs range from straight-up novelty numbers (i.e. “Dead Skunk,” his only certifiable hit) to bracingly honest confessionals. With High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, he takes on a new role: musicologist. The two-disc set is devoted to songs popularized by Poole, a banjo player whose “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” was of the first country hits. Although it isn’t pure folk revival, the album has a pleasantly old-timey sound that extends to the Wainwright originals peppered throughout, which tell Poole’s story and carry on his legacy.
Wainwright has also carved out a side career as an actor, most often in a string of Judd Apatow projects. More recently, he’s popped up in a recurring role on NBC’s Parks And Recreation. Wainwright talked to The A.V. Club in the early morning hours during a rare break from his frequent touring.
The A.V. Club: How did you get interested in Charlie Poole?
Loudon Wainwright III: I’d been a fan for over 30 years, and I happened to mention this to a friend of mine, Dick Connette, who I’d worked with before on a record called Last Man On Earth. He did some arrangements for that record. He gave me a Charlie Poole box set for, I think it was, my 59th birthday, and got one for himself, and got into it, and liked the material. And then he just had an idea where maybe we could do a project where we could go into that world and record those songs without trying to copy the music, and we would write some songs, which we did. He had the idea, and we just started figuring out what songs to record, ideas of who might play on it, and then it just kind of evolved. In terms of production, Poole’s music is string-band music, so we certainly had banjos and guitars and violins, and not a lot of electric guitars or electric basses. There’s a bit of drums on the record, but not much. We didn’t copy the music, but we didn’t steer it too far away from what it was.
AVC: There are probably any number of people whose songs you admire enough to record. Was there something that made Charlie Poole particularly suitable for this kind of project?
LW: Well, I think there are some parallels. He was not a songwriter, but his material—there’s novelty songs, sentimental parlor ballads, songs about mothers, and death. I’ve written about all those topics. The material that was there was stuff I liked anyway. I grew up in Westchester, New York, but my mother’s from Tifton, Georgia, which is way down south, practically to the Florida border. So that world, that Southern world, has a pull for me too. Poole was from North Carolina, and although he traveled a bit, he was mostly a Southern, rural guy. And he was a road maniac, which I am; I make my living traveling and playing. So there’s all kinds of parallels, I guess you could say.
AVC: A lot of people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Poole songs and your originals without looking at the liner notes.
LW: When it came to the writing of the songs, Dick and I were just thinking about what would fit in his world, and specifically on the record.
AVC: You mentioned using string-band instrumentation. Is that part of the attraction as well? To have a chance to live in that musical world for a while?
LW: I like that kind of music a lot. I don’t think of myself as a folk singer per se, but I really like blues and string-band music. When I started listening to records when I was a teenager, the folk boom was going on. I went to the Newport Folk Festival and saw The New Lost City Ramblers, which was a group of New York guys, but they just re-created all this string-band music, including stuff that Charlie Poole did. I saw the original people, like Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson, and my style of guitar playing comes from that country-bluegrass feel a lot. It’s a comfortable fit for me. I don’t play the banjo anything like Charlie Poole does, but I’ve been playing the banjo for 30 years, so I’m interested in him just because he was a banjo player.
AVC: In songs like “Westchester County,” you’ve written about coming from a privileged background, which may or may not be uncommon for folksingers, but is definitely unusual for them to admit. Bob Dylan didn’t write songs about being a middle-class Jewish kid in Minnesota.
LW: I guess there was a decision to write about really where I came from, which was Westchester County, and I went to boarding school, and I wrote about that. Some of it was, when you start out a career, you show up at the coffeehouse with your guitar, and all around me were other guys with long hair and bell-bottom pants. Right away, I knew I didn’t want to have that look, because everybody else had that look. I kind of adopted my boarding-school look, which made me stand out. Then the next thing you know, the first song on my first record is a song called “School Days.” It’s about going to the boarding school I went to. So then I just started to write about myself. The very first song I ever wrote was about a guy I met in a boatyard that we were working in. So I’ve always had this thing about sticking to more or less what I knew. There’s that old rule, “Write what you know about.” But as you say, a lot of songwriters don’t do that, and Dylan is one of them. Half the time you’re not even sure what he’s writing about, and that’s terrific. I just don’t write that way, though.
AVC: You’ve also written very honestly about the difficulties of family life, both as a child and as a father, which has been an ongoing theme since the beginning.
LW: Well, I’m interested in all those things. I have a song called “Men.” I mean, manhood and trying to be one, and failing as one, and trying to be a husband and a father, and failing at that. I love failure. It’s stuff that I’m thinking about all the time in my life, so it would make sense to me anyway to write about it. My dad was a journalist. He wrote for Life magazine and had a column called “The View From Here,” which in a way could be the title to almost any of my records. He had a free hand at Life magazine; he could write about anything he wanted to, and he wrote about a lot of stuff in the same way I write topical songs and novelty songs, and occasionally kind of generic songs. But his best stuff was always his personal stuff, like about the day we had to put our dog down, or finding old photographs of his father, or passing a guy he went to boarding school with on a street in New York. Very specific, detailed, descriptive columns that he wrote. I think in a way, it could be argued that my best songs are that way too. They’re almost journalistic in that they’re very clear, and very specific, and they describe things.
AVC: And then there’s “Hitting You,” in which you describe hitting your young daughter out of anger. What brings something like that up again? Other than therapy.
LW: Well, you know, it’s something I would never forget, that event, that incident. I’m not operating in a vacuum, too. I staked out my beat, so to speak, the waterfront that I cover before that. I had a reputation for writing about the personal, and I went with it. When people started to laugh at my songs and I became aware that I could be funny, I also went with that. So I’m not in a vacuum, but that event, hauling off and whacking my kid, I mean, every time I see her—not every time I see her, but it’s not something I would ever forget. There was an interesting song there.
AVC: You’re probably not the only singer-songwriter to have an experience like that, but it’s not something people tend to write about, because the singer doesn’t end up looking very good.
LW: No, no. Although it’s interesting, because most of the people that come up to me—I mean, that song is provocative, and it was meant to be—a lot of the people that would come up to me after a show, or if I’m selling a CD and they’d heard that song on that record, invariably most of them would be the parent who’s lost it. They weren’t kids saying, “God, that song reminds me of my old man and how he used to clobber me.” It was mostly people who were so guilty about the fact that they’d lost their cool in front of their kid. Eighty percent of them were those people.
AVC: You’re known both for songs that are purely funny and ones that mix humor and brutal honesty. Is it hard to sequence a show or a record when you’re dealing with material that comes from such different places?
LW: Well, what I’m going for with the records I’m making these days… 20 years ago, there were always novelty songs on the records, because I felt like I had to do that. Now, I’m trying to create moods and tones with records, so some of the records don’t have particularly funny songs on them. In the shows, I do incorporate humor. It’s just the way I build my show. I’ll do something funny, and then I’ll switch it around. It throws the audience a little bit, so you kind of bounce them around for 75 minutes. On the Charlie Poole record, because Poole did both novelty songs and more serious stuff, we played those off each other in the same way on that project.
AVC: There’s a performative aspect to your stage show, not just the songs, but the way you pull them together. Was it natural for that to lead to acting?
LW: I always wanted to be an actor, even as a little kid. So I went to drama school in the late ’60s at Carnegie Mellon. I eventually dropped out, but I was there for a year and a half, and I still have friends who I went to school with who are actors, so that’s definitely a part of the show, the performance aspect. In a way, the songs are written to be performed. I put them on records, but I’m always thinking about how an audience would react to it. I realized at age 7 that I wanted to be a performer, and I used to do that, and occasionally I’ll get an acting job. I don’t really make much of a living as an actor, but it’s fun to do it when I get a job.
AVC: Was it the classic example of clowning around as a child and realizing how good it felt to make people laugh?
LW: Well actually, it’s referenced in a song. I mentioned that record, Last Man On Earth; there’s a song on it called “Homeless.” It’s about after my mother died: “I was 7 when I sang you ‘Roisin The Beau’ there in Aunt Mary’s kitchen and I don’t guess I know.” I sang this song that I had learned in grammar school to my mother and her sister; my aunt Mary’s actually still alive. They were twins, and they were probably 28 when I did it, and they were beautiful, obviously, and I just sang this song a cappella to them, and they just showered me with so much praise and love that it was a locked deal at that point. I knew that I wanted to be some kind of performer.
AVC: One of your first roles was on M*A*S*H in 1975. Was it already a big hit at that point?
LW: Yeah, it was the third season. It was a big, big show, and it was a big deal. I’m sure it’ll be the second, if not the first sentence in my obituary, but I actually only did three episodes, although people somehow think I was on M*A*S*H that year. I was only in three episodes, but somewhere in the world, they’re on television right now. It was a big hit show then.
AVC: It must have been a big deal for you to be cast.
LW: Yeah, it was. Larry Gelbart, who passed away this year, saw me performing at The Troubadour in L.A., and he liked the show enough, and then he thought about a character who would burst into song.
AVC: You’ve been in a number of movies, but the roles are usually fairly small. How different was it to play Jay Baruchel’s father on Undeclared, where you’re in the same role for months rather than days?
LW: Well, that was great. I loved doing that, and of course we’re all sad that that show got canceled. I enjoyed that a lot, working with Judd Apatow and his whole gang. The way they all work, it’s like being a part of a family, in a way. In a sense, it has been. I’ve done other things since Undeclared with Judd. But that’s a different thing. When you’re a day player in a movie or a TV show, it’s a different thing, but it was great to be that kid’s father in that show.
AVC: Judd seems like someone whose artistic sensibility is pretty well in line with yours. He’s very funny, but there’s a solid emotional core to what he’s doing. It’s not just jokes.
LW: When my manager got the call from Judd Apatow, I had not seen Freaks And Geeks, which is what he’d done at that point. I’d seen The Larry Sanders Show, but I didn’t know he was involved with that. And then they said, “Would you be interested in trying out for this part?” So they sent over these videos of Freaks And Geeks, and when I started watching them, I thought, “Oh yeah, this is good.” First of all, it didn’t have a laugh track, and yeah, it was funny, but it was also the truth. So I thought, “Yeah, I definitely want to audition for that. The quality of it was so good.”
AVC: It’s a shame it was cancelled, but on the other hand, it never had the chance to run out of gas. If they’d done more, they would have slipped at some point.
LW: Yeah, it’s the same thing with The Honeymooners. And sure enough, when they did find some old kinescopes of extra ones, they weren’t quite as good. Things fan out after a while—it’s the natural order of things.
AVC: Along those lines, you’ve been writing songs now for going on 40 years.
LW: Yes. I did my first show and got paid for it and wrote my first song in 1968. So yeah, just over 40 years.
AVC: How do you work against things thinning out over time? Or do you just accept it?
LW: You just do the best you can. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get worse the more you do it. It can get better, I think… aspects of it, anyway. I mean, I don’t write as much as I used to. But I don’t do a lot of things as much as I used to. So that’s the natural order of things, too. You’re more or less living in the present. You’re just trying to get that next song, whatever it is. And not think too much about what happened on the last record, or the record you made 20 years ago, because those are over with. Those are done.
AVC: If you were trying to write some new version of a teenage love song, instead of writing about life, the well might’ve run dry a long time ago.
LW: Yeah, I’m writing about what’s happening to me now. I mean, I had a hip replacement a couple of years ago. I have a song about that. And why wouldn’t you? It strikes me that that was a huge event. It’s kind of funny and horrible and interesting, so why wouldn’t one write about that?
AVC: Not to mention you have the field of hip-replacement-surgery songs all to yourself.
LW: Right, no one else is doing it! Somebody’s gotta do it!
AVC: You’ve talked about the influence of musical theater on your work, and you actually wrote the songs for a musical adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s novel Lucky You. Was that kind of music around the house a lot?
LW: My dad had a great record collection, and a lot of it was what we used to call show tunes. Broadway stuff: Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers And Hart, all those great, great songs. But he also had Louis Prima records, and Leadbelly records, and there was a Joan Baez record I remember. He turned me onto Joan Baez. [Laughs.] I listened to all those records. I remember I had this huge pair of headphones that I would listen to the records on, so I have his record collection to thank in terms of all my influences. They came out of that record collection. Then of course when the folk boom happened, as a young person, I got myself one of those acoustic guitars. But those Frank Loesser records, Guys And Dolls… That was his biggest. And oddly enough… Not oddly enough, a great thing was that my first publishing company was Frank Music, Frank Loesser’s publishing company.
AVC: I don’t think a lot of the people that were following Dylan and Joan Baez into the coffee shops of Greenwich Village were thinking about Frank Loesser songs.
LW: He’s a hero. Also Tom Lehrer, and Stan Freberg, and even Allan Sherman were influences.