Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An A+ Project

Charlie Poole in 1930

There is no other singer/songwriter quite like Loudon Wainwright III. I've never heard anyone as baldly confessional as he is in song. His wry observations are always laced with wit and humor. You listen to Loudon's life story and continually marvel at how he crystallizes an emotional moment: losing your anger with a child, feeling sheepish at a playground with all the mothers there, preferring your solitude, and (for all you fame-seekers) groveling for notoriety.

What's especially interesting about Loudon's latest, and perhaps most ambitious, release (High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project) is how he steps back from the confessional and turns to the sentimental. Even while doing so, his feet are still firmly planted in both approaches.

Charlie Poole, a banjo player from the early 20th century, was a rambler, a rascal, and a drunk. He hailed from Spray, North Carolina, a cotton mill town. During Charlie's life, thousands of people from the hill country around Spray improved their existences marginally by coming to work in the mills. The hours were long and the work backbreaking. After punching the clock, these folks were ready to party, and Charlie and his group often provided the entertainment.

He had a magnetic style. Driven by a passion for music, Charlie made his first banjo out of a gourd. He would sneak out of the mill and play his banjo on a bridge nearby. So many of his co-workers poked their heads out of the mill's windows to hear and see him, he got fired. And then, because he continued playing outside and getting the same reaction, he was rehired and told to play inside the mill!

Charlie was a busker. (Weren't most folk musicians before they had festivals?) When Poole performed he would sometimes do somersaults, and leap over a chair, landing on his back, then continuing his dance on his hands with his feet up in the air.

One can appreciate his attraction to Loudon Wainwright. There is the attitude of devil-may-care recklessness evinced in the music associated with Charlie Poole. A big theme in Loudon's life story is his celebration of being divorced and alone--coupled with the guilt of disappointing the families he's left behind.

Loudon is also a terrific live act. Although he doesn't leap over chairs, he has facial and vocal mannerisms that keep you rapt in addition to the power of his singing and lyrics.

So Loudon can inhabit Charlie's spirit, and he does so brilliantly. This 2-CD set is structured like a play. If only Loudon, who acts professionally, were still in his 30s and could star in it! (Charlie Poole drank himself to death at 39.)

What's marvelous is that the most confessional singer-songwriter of his generation celebrates a man who didn't write much music at all. In fact, not one of the 28 tracks on this project are written by Poole. When searching to express his life story, the barely literate Charlie mined Tin Pan Alley and the traditional music of his fellow country folk. That's what makes this release such a lovely evocation of an era.

About three-quarters of the project are a labor of musicology. What wonderful songs are revived, and how beautifully presented they are! There's "The Letter That Never Came", written by Paul Dresser, the brother of Theodore Dreiser and author of "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away", the second-best selling song (in terms of sheet music) of the nineteenth century. It is haunted by a simple question, so quaint to hear today: "Is there any mail for me?" There's a number by Harry von Tilzer ("Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie", "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "And The Green Grass Grew All Around") called "Moving Day" in which sweet harmonizing is done by Loudon's second family, the Roches. The lyrics of this one resonate today:

Landlord said this morning to me,
"Give me your key, this flat ain't free.
I can't get any rent out of you
Pack your rags and skidoo."

No, this song is not a blues. The attitude is more, "All right, well, let's sing as we pack." I love it!

Loudon, who was extremely close to his mother (his grieving memorably chronicled on 2001's The Last Man on Earth), is clearly moved by an era in which motherhood was often celebrated in song. "My Mother & My Sweetheart", which features just a violin, piano, bass, and Loudon's guitar, will move you to tears, I'm warning you.

The project is handsomely packaged to resemble a book. (Trim size of the case looks to be around 5.5 inches by 6.5 inches.) The interior of the case is festooned with photographs of Charlie and his family, along with images of sheet music and old music contracts. Included is a terrific booklet which surely will be nominated for a Grammy this year. In addition to the lyrics, it features liner notes by famous music critic Greil Marcus (whose 1975's Mystery Train placed rock and roll in a larger context of cultural archetypes like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby).

The project was produced by Dick Connette (who had also produced Loudon on The Last Man on Earth and Geoff Muldaur on his remarkable 2003 tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, Private Astronomy). He co-wrote four of the songs with Loudon, and wrote two others on his own, and they all seamlessly blend into the mood.

There is a warmth here that's absent from music-making and life in general right now. I expect this CD to be up for a Grammy this year, and, oh, if Loudon could only then go on stage and realize a dream he first sang of in "The Grammy Song" from 1982's Fame and Wealth.

Last night I dreamed I won a Grammy
It was presented to me by Debbie Harry
I ran up on stage in my tux
I gulped and I said, "Aw, shucks,
I'd like to thank my producers
and Jesus Christ."

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