Loudon Wainwright III Pays Tribute to Forgotten Country Star
Loudon Wainwright III is a folk-music mainstay, but he's never had a country hit, although he has recorded in Nashville and had his songs covered by a handful of country acts. You'll recognize him though, from acting roles in 'G-Force,' 'Knocked Up,' 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' and 'M*A*S*H.' But if you haven't seen him, you've heard his music. If you're of a certain age, you probably sang along to his early-'70s Top 20 pop hit, 'Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road).'
For his latest project, though, the 62-year musician and actor steps into the shoes (not literally but musically) of another artist largely unfamiliar to modern country music fans, yet highly influential and hugely successful in his day. Banjo player and singer Charlie Poole was born 117 years ago. and during the 1920s, he and his string band, the North Carolina Ramblers, were selling as much as ten times more than other artists were with their recordings and sheet music.
In tribute to Charlie, Loudon has created the beautifully-packaged two-disc set 'High Wide and Handsome,' combining songs from Charlie's vast repertoire with original material created by Loudon himself. "I was disappointed, of course, to learn that he hadn't written those songs," Loudon tells The Boot. "But he owned them. And his versions of these songs are pretty much the definitive versions."
The title track, which Loudon wrote, is a nod to Charlie's live-and-let-live philosophy. Sadly, he took that creed perhaps a bit too far. Charlie went on a 13-week drinking binge and lost his chance to appear in a Hollywood film. He died in 1931 at age 39.
"In a way part of this project is [Loudon] trying on Charlie's suit." says producer Dick Connette, who wrote or co-wrote many of the original tunes on the two-disc set.
A documentary about the life of Charlie Poole is in the works, although at one time, Loudon entertained the idea of starring in a Poole bio-pic film. And although he's been in some box-office biggies, Loudon concedes if such a film did happen the role would probably go to a different actor. "'The Charlie Poole Story' with Will Smith as Charlie Poole!," he jokes.
"I went to Carnegie Hall and he did a show there when that record came out. He came out with June [Carter Cash] and the Tennessee Three. And he did that song with just a guitar. It was great. I went backstage and met him and he immediately apologized and said, 'Oh, I screwed that up.' I don't think he screwed it up! Then he sent me a thank-you letter on House of Cash stationery, with a House of Cash emblem on it."
While his exposure to modern country music is limited, Loudon does see the connection between it and what he's been writing and performing for the past five decades.
"It's the same five chords we're all using," he says. "My music comes from country music. Merle Haggard is God, and I do believe that. I'm not too tuned in to country music. I don't know who Brooks and Dunn are."
"I like Shania Twain, though!," he adds, with a high, wide and handsome grin.
More information about Charlie Poole is available at the album's official website.