Legendary Songwriter Loudon Wainwright III

Photo by Ross Halfin

Loudon Wainwright III is a musician that has blended a sense of humor with an eye on the times in his unique blend of folk, blues, roots, and rock music over the years.  In addition to releasing more than twenty albums he has also made an impression onscreen in roles in: MASH, Big Fish, and Knocked Up.  He might be best known for songs like his 1972 hit “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road)” as well as fathering musicians Rufus, Martha, & Lucy Wainwright, but as his 2009 Grammy win for Best Traditional Folk Album suggests, he’s a man of many talents who shouldn’t be judged solely on his highlight reel.  He will be performing locally at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Friday, June 4 and at Central Park Summer Stage on June 8.

First of all, congratulations on your Grammy, how has it changed things for you if at all?

Well as the expression goes “it couldn’t hurt” or “it doesn’t hurt” or “it’s not hurting.”  You know, it was a wonderful finish to, I don’t’ know if finish is the right word, it was a wonderful payoff to the work that we did on the album, the double album, High, Wide, & Handsome that I did with my friend Dick Connette who produced the album and bankrolled the whole project.  So it’s wonderful that it ended up the way it did and we won the Grammy.  And yes, now in my obituary somewhere there will probably be a mention of the fact that I am a Grammy winner in addition to being the father of talented children and the creator of “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road).”

Yeah definitely, speaking about High, Wide, & Handsome I wanted to ask how you came upon choosing Charlie Pool as a subject to cover and work with?

Well basically, I’m of the generation where in the mid [to] late 60’s I was a kid, a teenager listening to music and in addition to Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman records I was listening to groups like The Holy Modal Rounders and The New Lost City Ramblers and they were covering songs like “Moving Day” and “The Baltimore City Fire” that they got off Charlie Poole records, well Charlie Poole was not a song writer but he was a wonderful, creative interpreter of the popular songs of his day which was the 1920’s, and then I actually heard Charlie Poole himself in the early 70’s (I didn’t hear him live because he died in 1938) but there was a hip label out at that time called County Records and they had some Charlie Poole material so I heard them and I really just got into him and his style of playing and singing and then the fella that I just mentioned, Dick Connette, had this idea that we could somehow inhabit his world and take what our feelings were as performers and songwriters and just do an album, a project and that’s how it all happened.

It’s a terrific album and it seems to segue cleanly into your new album Songs for the New Depression. Was there any thought to that or was it just coincidence?

There wasn’t really a lot of thought; I mean I have written topical songs throughout my entire career.  I suppose that I’m of a generation that, in the 60’s you’d hear, well certainly Bob Dylan, but even before him Woody Guthrie, you know, people that would write social commentary and so that’s something that I’ve done, I did an album in the early 90’s called Social Studies.  So I just started to write these topical songs to kind of track the recession that we are in now and I found a couple of songs from the old depression and so there is a link I suppose because Poole lived in that first depression and some of his songs, I mentioned “Moving Day,” but I suppose it can be construed as dealing with hard times but I wasn’t trying to link the two albums in any particular way, it’s just coincidental- one came after the other.

There’s a song on your new album, “Fear Itself,” that I find really interesting in talking about the times now because it seems to have a personal meaning too. Where did that song stem from and how did it develop?

Well, again I started writing the first song on the album “Times are Hard” which was written kind of around the inaugural and then I just had my eye out and do what I do everyday which is read the newspaper a little bit and glance at the news and it just struck me that again all these parallels were being made between this depression and the old one, the Roosevelt era depression, and that expression “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then I just- often a song can start that way with just a line or an idea and the song opens with “everybody’s talking about 1929 eighty long years ago” and then you’re just off then you just write four verses really I mean that’s how these things really happen.

Do you tend to write the same way?  Do you tend to sit down and try to write songs?  What’s your process in terms of writing music?

The parallel I use is fishing.  I mean, you’ve got a line in the water and a bait on a hook I suppose and you know you have some skills as a fisherman.  In my case I’ve been writing songs for forty years or thereabouts so there’s also mystery: why do you get a bite? or a strike? or why does the fish take the hook?  I mean I don’t quite understand how it all works, the inspiration part, but you know you’re out there trolling around looking for stuff and then all of a sudden you pull up and you’ve got something.  That’s the best way I can describe it.

Ironically, I first became aware of your music as a music director working at a college radio station when I picked up an album and saw the track “IWIWAL (I Wish I Was A Lesbian)” and I had to at least give it a listen.  The song, like many of your hit songs is categorized as a “novelty song.”  How do you feel about your hit songs being referred to as “novelty”?

Well, in my mind a novelty song is a good thing, I grew up a fan of so-called novelty songs, I don’t know if your familiar with the work of people like Ray Stevens or Stan Freberg or Tom Lehrer or even Allan Sherman, songs that make people laugh- I’m all for that so I write those kinds of songs- like silly, fun songs like “I Wish I was a Lesbian” or “Dead Skunk” or I have a new song about getting my guitar broken called “Suzy.” I continue to do that, I mean I write other kinds of songs- I don’t spend a lot of time dividing them up into categories, I’m just writing songs, but occasionally a novelty song comes out, occasionally something that you wouldn’t call a novelty song by any stretch of the imagination comes out.

Even as an actor a lot of your roles are humorous but often when you incorporate humor into work it sometimes doesn’t get the respect it warrants.

Yeah, I think that’s a mistake.  When I do a show for instance, I work at getting the audience to loosen up and to laugh and some of these songs are designed to illicit that laughter and it’s not an easy thing to get 300 people to laugh at the same time or 2000 or 30, whatever the number is but it takes skill and timing and it’s not a simple, easy, nothing thing to do.

Absolutely, as a stand-up comedian I totally understand.  I wanted to ask you about your family because you have such a musical family. Did you ever sit down and teach your kids music at all or did they just get it from being around you?  They each have their own personal styles and you’ve all worked together on different songs, how did the Wainwright family of music develop, because your parents weren’t necessarily musical at all right?

Well my father wrote some songs, he played a little bit of piano but he wasn’t a musician but he loved music and had a terrific record collection and that’s where I heard all those Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg records, in his record collection.  I think in terms of the kids, they’re not kids anymore, Rufus is 36 but Lucy, Martha, and Rufus who are out and about doing music earning a living as musicians, making records, writing songs, performing I suppose some of that is genetic perhaps.  Rufus and Martha’s mother was the great musician and songwriter Kate McGarrigle and Lucy’s mom is Suzzy Roche of The Roches, so the deck was genetically stacked I suppose you could say.  They grew up around guitars and pianos and banjos and parents who were going to do shows and sound checks and in the studio so the nature and nurture aspect of it , it doesn’t surprise me that they ended up as singers and songwriters and musicians and happily they are talented.

It can certainly be tumultuous in the music industry. Was there ever a fear of them going into the industry? Did you ever push them away from it?

No, no both their mothers and I were both pleased that they were singers and drawn to the family business, it’s a wonderful thing.  It’s not an easy life particularly. The touring and the traveling is chaotic and reeks havoc at home but it’s a great life. I mean I’m a believer that being an entertainer is an honorable, noble calling so I’m happy that the kids are doing it.

Speaking of the road, you’re on the road now. What is your approach to the road?  You’re a seasoned musician who’s done it so long, are there certain rituals you go through?

It’s harder and harder to go on the road cause I’m getting older and older and basically the shlep is tough and you know airports are a nightmare now with all the screening and baggage issues and paying for bags and you can’t bring the guitar on the plane and it’s a big hassle being on the road and it hasn’t really been fun being on the road.  A lot people travel in buses and I suppose that’s easier but since I’m a one man operation I travel alone.  That’s the aspect of the job I don’t like, the other aspects like the songwriting and performing I still love and outweigh the vagaries I suppose so but it’s a tough life.  Now it’s about figuring out how can I not bring this- do I really need my computer?  It’s weight, it’s all about weight and movement and it’s become about physics more than anything else.

Yeah, did you get a chance to see Up in the Air? It gives a good look at the physics of traveling?

Yes I did.

You’ve had a number of interesting film and television roles over the years and certainly with Knocked Up and doing an album based on that film you sort of opened yourself up to a whole new audience.  How did that come about?

Well, Judd Apatow was a fan of mine when he was a teenager, I guess in the eighties he grew up on Long Island and I think he saw me on one of those variety shows like The Mike Douglas Show or the David Letterman Afternoon Show or something and something I was doing just grabbed him.  I didn’t know this of course until I met him about 10 years ago and he got in touch with me about being in his television show Undeclared.  So that’s really how that all happened, I studied to be an actor. I thought I was going to be an actor and I went to drama school.  I had done some stage work and a couple of movies in the eighties but then with Judd and the TV show and being in Knocked Up and working on the music, you know I’m doing more things now I suppose, getting little parts in movies every once in awhile and one of my songs was just in that TV show Parenthood.  You know it’s great getting the songs into movies and getting the little acting jobs is always fun so I’m quite happy about that development and I think I owe a lot to Judd in that regard.

How would you compare Hollywood with the music industry?

Oh, pretty much the same, you know, full of shit.  That’s pretty much it but I mean again, it’s pretty much like Ingrid Bergman put it “but still you wouldn’t trade it for a sack of gold” or “a sack of shit” what every she says- “a sack of weed.”

You’ve had this long career with a number of interesting turns, any large regrets?  What are the moments that you’re happiest with?

Well, I’m full of regrets but we won’t talk about that, but it was a great year, it was wonderful to win the Grammy and I actually just got back from the road yesterday and opened up the box and now it’s on the mantel so that certainly was a thrill.  I think as a songwriter  I don’t think about writing for other people so much but occasionally somebody will record my songs and this year Mose Allison who is one of my absolute heroes, I still go see him when he performs, recorded one of my songs, a song called “I’m Alright” on his new album.  That was the kick of the year, it’s going to be hard to top that , that and the Grammy and I became a grandfather too, that’s a big thing- speaking of ‘g’ words.  Martha had a boy in November so but certainly having someone like Mose Allison record one of your songs, it’s a thrill, there is no other word for it.

Yeah, when you have Mose and Johnny Cash covering your stuff you are doing well!

Yeah, we’ve had some interesting covers and I am always happy when that can happen.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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