Back in 1966 when Bob Dylan broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck, Loudon Wainwright III was among his possible successors (along with Springsteen, John Prine and Steve Forbert) – heaven forbid should Dylan not recover. At least that’s how Wainwright told it on “Talking New Bob Dylan” from his wonderful and personal History album from 1992: “We were new Bob Dylans / Your dumbass kid brothers.” Of course, Dylan recovered.
Wainwright’s been playing his own brand of wise and biting personal tragicomic folk since the ‘60s, and he’s still going strong – although not all of his efforts have been quite on the money. “Songs from the Westchester County delta country,” as he’s referred to his music, tongue firmly in cheek I’m sure.
He’s also been a huge Charlie Poole fan from the moment he heard his first Poole song when a friend played it for him in the early 1970s. Poole — who predates Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — made quite an impression, because Wainwright originally planned to write and star in a feature film about the late troubadour from Spray, North Carolina. He’s been thinking about it ever since, and so, nearly four decades later, he’s released High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.
This two-volume set is bookended by the title cut and its reprise, a Wainwright original about living fast, hard and free without fretting over the consequences. This is how Poole lived until his death at age 39.
Although Poole didn’t write the songs he played and recorded — most were traditionals of the day — he certainly “owned them” as Wainwright states in the collection’s extensive liner notes, featuring a Poole biography, insight into the songs, and recollections from both Wainwright and producer Dick Connette.
One can see the attraction of Poole’s songs and personality for Wainwright: “the humor, the clarity, the simplicity, the wise guy attitude, and, occasionally, an unapologetic emotional sincerity,” Connette writes. Nine of the 30 songs are Wainwright’s or Connette’s, or collaborations between the two men. Listening to this grand effort, one can sense the passion and love the musicians have for Poole. It’s a family affair, too, as sister Sloan and three of Wainwright’s children, Martha, Rufus and Lucy, established artists in their own right, provide backing vocals for “Took My Gal Out Walkin’,” “Old and Only in the Way,” “The Great Reaping Day,” and the W.C. Handy classic “Ramblin’ Blues.” Suzzy Roche, mother of Lucy Wainwright-Roche, also lends backup.
Thanks to Loudon Wainwright III and everyone involved in High Wide and Handsome, listeners can enjoy the mood of the rambler, the busker, the traveling troubadour concerned only with entertaining folks through honest music and stories. After all, it’s better than living “low skinny and ugly.”
Go to The Charlie Poole Project to check out Poole’s background, photos, album samples, free bonus tracks, and downloadable project booklet — entertaining reading indeed.