Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Oldham's County

Cover Story

He's an acclaimed actor. He's Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. He's the best songwriter Louisville has ever produced. But who is Will Oldham, really?

You would not have to look far to find someone who believes Will Oldham is the most profound songwriter of his generation. Björk asked Oldham to open for her at the Hollywood Bowl. Johnny Cash asked him to join him for a cover of Oldham's song "I See a Darkness" on Cash's death-rattle of a final album. P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave and Charlie Louvin are admirers. His influence is everywhere and unmistakable: on alt-country bands steeped in the South, on the urban freak-folk scene that's all the rage and on lo-fi indie-rockers who find themselves pushed to poetry. There are even those who think he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role in last year's acclaimed film Old Joy. This Sunday, the Louisville singer-songwriter will play the album "I See A Darkness," the instant classic he recorded as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, at Wild and Woolly Video's 10th anniversary party at Headliners.

It's a rare local appearance for a wayward genius who hides among us in plain sight, whose bald head and dirty blonde beard make him look like either a cherubic teen or a country grandfather, depending on the lighting. At times in concert, he augments his rural appearance with too much eye shadow. Once, I passed by him bicycling past Mid-City Mall wearing a pink, short-sleeved button-down shirt with short-shorts and flip-flops. He is very supportive of other musicians. He has contributed songs to locally released compilations. He sings songs by obscure English folkies and AC/DC. He is a fan of R. Kelly, and he is a fan of Merle Haggard. One thing he is not a fan of is explaining himself or his songs. Most interviews he has granted are painful to read; when the British newspaper the Guardian sent an award-winning music journalist to talk to him, Oldham did the interview while running errands in the Highlands. "I'm kinda busy," he told the writer as he checked his post office box.

So I was almost relieved when Oldham declined my interview request. (In its review of Old Joy, the Village Voice called Oldham "brilliantly annoying." Perhaps there's never been a truer two-word review.) I don't want to be the guy asking irritating questions about why he does what he does. And his obfuscation would take some of the fun out of wondering about how he makes his beautiful music. "He does represent the starting point for a whole generation of songwriters; he's the most popular and influential folk song writer of the '90s indie wave," said New York anti-folk musician Jeffrey Lewis, who was even moved to write a song about his idol, "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror." "Even the recent 'freak folk' scene of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Coco Rosie, etc., the idea of a weird-voiced folk singer who seemingly has 'outsider art' status while in actuality being a hip insider, all of this seems to have grown out of Will Oldham's influence."

A (reluctant) star is born

Will Oldham was born in Louisville on Dec. 24, 1970. As a youth, he trained as an actor, first at Walden Theatre, then at Actors Theatre of Louisville. At Actors, he auditioned for writer-director John Sayles, who put him in his movie Matewan. The script called for a Southern-fried teenaged Appalachian preacher - more country than any true Louisville boy, and a great opportunity for an actor. While his Brown School classmates were smoking their first joints, Oldham was co-starring with James Earl Jones. "He was a cute little crazy kid and obviously very talented," said James Roemer, the former general manager at Actors, now the administrative director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. All that early success, however, didn't sell him on the craft. In an early indication of Oldham's discomfort with the machinery of celebrity, he grew frustrated with things like posing for headshots.

At 20, he dropped out of Brown University, bought a cheap guitar and landed in New York. On an album by a forgotten group called Box of Chocolates, his distinctive, surprisingly pretty voice can be heard in its early stages, though no one noticed at the time. So Oldham returned to Louisville, where the guys he had gone to school with were building one of the 1990s' most exciting indie-rock scenes. It was Oldham who shot the photo of Slint swimming that appears on the band's classic 1991 album Spiderland, an image that would be recreated years later for the "New Slang" video by seemingly everyone's favorite new band, the Shins. The born performer almost fell into the indie rock world, where he made an impression even before he started recording. "I have a real strong memory of seeing Matewan, and I thought Will was great," said director Phil Morrison, who lured Oldham back to the movies with a bit part in the 2005 indie sleeper Junebug. "Back then, movies were this other province. Even an indie movie like Matewan was from a bigger, more glamorous place. So to go to CBGB to see Rapeman, or whatever Steve Albini was doing at that moment, and see the kid from Matewan get on stage and, in my recollection, fart into a microphone, well, that was bananas."

Spontaneous greatness

Still in his early 20s, at that delicate point where those prone to breakdowns begin to fall apart, Oldham lost the plot. He retreated to his brother Paul's home in Virginia. There he began writing the songs that would make up his first album. One could've assumed at the time that Oldham might have attempted an adventurous rock record like his friends in Slint or his heroes like Albini, the studio guru behind some of the most admired albums of the last decade. But that would mean underestimating the general oddness of Louisville. Like Ethan Buckler, who left Slint for the absurdist faux-blues of King Kong, Oldham went away from rock. With his first record, There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, he made a very rural declaration. Teamed with Slint bassist Todd Brashear (now the owner of Wild and Woolly), a yelping Oldham used banjoes to fill in spaces where electric guitars and synthesizers might go. He sang about family, about good and evil, about drink and the Devil. He also began challenging audiences. He claimed Washington Phillips' '20s blues song "I Had a Good Mother and Father" as his own, as he had with his first single, "Ohio River Boat Song," a localized re-write of the Scottish folk song "Loch Tay Boat Song" with new lyrics referring to his home (Floyds Knobs, Smoketown, Oldham County).

He also challenges basic notions of family, as his band name - the Palace Brothers - referred not to actual brothers, but rather to whomever was playing in his band at the moment, which changed almost constantly. "(He) chooses the people he's going to play with shortly before the session, so everyone is playing by the seat of their pants, and the music is at constant risk, subject to the weaknesses of whoever's in the room," said Albini, who recorded many of Oldham's best albums, including Palace's Viva Last Blues and Arise Therefore. "But he gets absolutely spontaneous moments of greatness you couldn't rehearse."

A constant chameleon

Like Bob Dylan, Oldham continues to re-interpret not only folk songs but also his own songs. In recent years, he released his first live album, Summer in the Southeast, which featured surprising versions of his songs, as well as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, on which he re-recorded lo-fi '90s Palace Brothers songs backed by slick Nashville studio veterans. "Playing with him has always been an extraordinarily loose and fun experience," said Louisville guitarist Dave Bird, who has played with Oldham off and on. "Will puts a lot of trust in the folks he's playing with, and that's generally the way I like to roll as well."

Oldham continues to surprise. Critics who pigeonholed him as a bluegrass-infused type after his first album were forced to come up with a new explanation when he followed up with a solo acoustic record. Later records were filled with pianos, then (relatively) harder rock. His breakthrough album came in 1999. Released under yet another moniker - Bonnie "Prince" Billy - I See A Darkness caught the attention of famed producer Rick Rubin, who included the title song on a tape he sent to Johnny Cash. Cash invited Oldham to sing it with him on what would end up being one of Cash's last studio albums. "He has a great voice - very identifiable," said country legend Charlie Louvin, who invited Oldham to sing "Knoxville Girl" with him on his new album of duets. "If you ever heard him one time, you would pick him out of anything he'd done. That's a great asset for anybody to have - don't just sound like everybody else that they've heard."

Still keeping his distance

In 2002, Oldham told England's Guardian Unlimited that he does not want "a personal relationship with my fans. Or to do anything that encourages them to think they have one with me. They can have a personal relationship with my songs. That's fine, but they don't know me." And at one point in Old Joy, Oldham tells a friend, "I'm at a whole new place now, really." It looks like he's actually been in the same place for a long time. By shifting personas and styles so effectively, he's turned reinvention into an art form on darkly revealing albums that nevertheless reveal little about the man behind them. And the more you talk to his friends and those who have worked with him, the more the mystery remains. Even people who have gotten to know Oldham can't really explain him. But then again, we all have friends like that. Morrison, the movie director, struggles to reconcile the Oldham he calls "surprisingly regular" with the inscrutable performer who is constantly changing his stage name and sometimes sings covers of Mariah Carey songs. "It's classic Will - everything I say about him, I have to throw in some contradictory caveat," Morrison said. "That's entertaining and interesting. What's funny is how balled up we all can get over it. What do you mean? What's the truth about you? It makes people mad."

c. 2007 Velocity Weekly

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great profile!!!