Pulling off a double album isn’t easy: They tend to be bloated, navel-gazing affairs that pursue nebulous uniting concepts only apparent to the artists behind them. But with 42 years and 24 albums spent as a wry, craggy troubadour, Loudon Wainwright III has earned the right to a pet project. And while High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project isn’t as dubious as a band’s unexpected space opera about robots in love, it’s still awfully ambitious: It’s a 30-song tribute to ’20s banjo player and country singer Charlie Poole—a “sonic bio-pic of sorts,” as Wainwright describes it in the introduction of the set’s 70-page booklet. As the aforementioned figures and subject matter suggest, this isn’t for dilettantes; this is the album Wainwright wanted to make. But that doesn’t prevent it from being an inviting point of entry to anyone who hasn’t heard of Poole. Chances are, many of Poole’s fans don’t know they’re his fans: His renditions are better known than his name.
High Wide & Handsome isn’t a tribute album in the strictest sense, as Poole is a difficult musician to cover per se: He wrote few songs during his short, influential career, but he was responsible for popularizing many traditional folk songs. Wainwright takes great pains not to chase the Poole “sound,” which allows the narrowly focused endeavor to breathe considerably. It’s also to his credit that he’s contributed seven original songs intended to be either biographical or from Poole’s perspective, and they’re hard to pick out with a track list not handy. So while authorless standards like “Awful Hungry Hash House,” about the shittiest diner imaginable, sound custom-made for Wainwright’s caring, old-timey arrangements, the charming trombone and cheery whistling refrain on the original composition “No Knees” sound as natural and ingrained as any other part of the century-old songs on this collection.