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A 'Handsome' Tribute From Loudon Wainwright

The singer and songwriter's new double album, High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, is a tribute to the old-time country banjo player who died in 1931.

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A 'Handsome' Tribute From Loudon Wainwright

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. I’m a big fan of Loudon Wainwright’s
songs and his singing. Many of his songs are autobiographical. Most are
about contemporary life, whether it’s about family relationships or
politics.

So I’m surprised to see that he has a new double-CD paying tribute to
the music of Charlie Poole, the old-time country-music banjo player and
singer. Poole was also quite a drinker and died after a long binge in
1931 at the age of 39.

The new double-CD is called “High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole
Project.” It features Wainwright performing songs that were recorded by
Poole and his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, as well as a few songs
inspired by Poole, Guests on the CD include Wainwright’s children, Rufus
and Martha.

The idea for his new album was proposed by Wainwright’s friend, Dick
Connette, who produced the new CDs and wrote some new songs for the
project. Let’s start with Wainwright’s recording of one of Charlie
Poole’s best-known tracks, “Moving Day.”

(Soundbite of song, “Moving Day”)

Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Musician): (Singing) Landlord said this
morning to me, give me your key, this flat ain't free. I can't get no
rent out of you. Pack up your rags and skidoo. I said wait until my Bill

comes home. He's my honey from the honeycomb. He'll have money ‘cuz he
told me so this morning.

Because it’s moving day, moving day. Rip the carpet up off the floor,
take your oil stove and out the door. It's moving day. Pack your folding
bed and get away. If you spend every cent, you can live out in a tent
because it's moving day.

Because it’s moving day, moving day. Rip the carpet up off the floor,
take your oil stove and out the door. It's moving day. Pack your folding
bed and get away. If you spend every cent, you can live out in a tent
because it's moving day.

Bill came in all covered in snow. I said hello, give me some dough.
Here’s the landlord waiting for rent. Bill said I ain’t got a cent.
Here’s two chickens I brought home for stew. Landlord, take them for the
rent that’s due. Landlord said my chicken coop was robbed this morning.

And so it’s moving day, moving day. Rip the carpet up off of the floor.
Take your oil stove and out the door. It’s moving day. Pack your folding
bed and get away. If you spend every cent, you can live in a tent
because it’s moving day.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Love those CDs.
It’s a pleasure to have you here. So how were you introduced to Charlie
Poole’s music?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: In the early ‘70s, there was a singer or songwriter guy
called Patrick Sky who was a friend of mine, and he sang me a little
piece of “Hungry Hash House Blues,” which had the line: the beefsteak,
it was rare, and the butter had red hair. And I was laughing and
thinking at the same time, where did that come from?

And then he told me about Charlie Poole, and I found a record that came
out on a great label called County Records, and then I heard Poole for
the first time and was very taken by his singing and his general persona
that came across on these records. And then I found out a little bit
more about him and became a huge fan.

GROSS: Tell us something about his life, which is so different than
yours?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, well, it’s different, and there’s similarities. I
mean, he lived – I think he was born in 1893, and he died in 1931. He
was an alcoholic. He was from a town called Spray, North Carolina, which
is no more. It’s part of a township called Eden. It was a mill town when
he was a young man, but he found a way out of that world with music.

He was a very interesting banjo player. He kind of created a banjo style
that led to Scruggs picking and three-finger picking. But he led a
traveling, rambling life. His group was called the North Carolina
Ramblers, and they toured everywhere in the South. They even got up to
New York to make some records.

He had a hit record called “The Deal” - don’t let the deal go down -
sold over 100,000 copies for Columbia Records, which was a massive hit.
I mean, that would be like an Eagles thing or a Michael Jackson thing.

So – but my mother was born in south Georgia, and I ramble a bit myself,
so there are – I feel a kind of connection with Poole, even though I
grew up in Westchester, New York and didn’t work in a mill.

GROSS: And your father was a famous columnist for Life magazine. So you
were definitely not at the mill. One of the things I really like about
this set of CDs is that, you know, you are known as a singer-songwriter,
and you’re a great songwriter, but this, this takes you into different
territory, which is other people’s songs from another era, because these
are songs from the late 1800s, early 1900s. It’s a mix of songs. There’s
sentimental songs and vaudeville songs and novelty songs, and you know,
blues kind of songs and country songs, and they bring out all different
sides of you, and some of those sides I would necessarily know about.

So I want to play an example of one of the really sentimental songs that
you do, because there are some lovely, old-fashioned sentimental songs,
mostly about mothers, mother’s last kiss, you know, mother’s grave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A lot of mother songs, but they’re really lovely, and I want to
play one called “My Mother and My Sweetheart.” Just talk a little bit
about singing this kind of old-fashioned, sentimental song, and you – I
should say you are someone who’s known for your songs about dysfunction,
family dysfunction, and for songs that have, you know, great
contemporary, like, wit and skepticism, cynicism. So this sentimentality
kind of goes against the grain for you, I think.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I think it does. I mean, I – maybe that’s why I was
drawn to it. As you say, it’s mostly other people’s songs. So I’m just
being a singer most of the time on this record, which in and of itself
is a kind of relief, you know, that it isn’t the Loudon Wainwright III
trip again.

But as far as the sentimental stuff goes, it’s all over this record. And
you know, like a lot of people, my mother was a huge thing for me, and
so on both an Oedipal and an actual level – I guess I’m being redundant
– so I like the mother songs, and we have a couple of them on the
record.

GROSS: Are we going to have to go into the Oedipal stuff?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: We don’t have to do that, Terry. We don’t have to
Oedipal today. Let’s just say mom stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let’s get to the music.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: All right.

GROSS: So this is a lovely song, “My Mother and My Sweetheart.” It’s
written by E.P. Moran and J. Fred Holf. This is Loudon Wainwright, from
his new CD, “High, Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”

(Soundbite of song, “My Mother and My Sweetheart”)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) A crowd of young fellows one night at a club,
were telling of sweethearts they had. All of them jolly, except one
young man, Who seemed downhearted and sad. “Come, Ned, won’t you join
us?” His comrades then asked, “For surely some girl has loved you.”
Raising his head, he so proudly then said, “Why, boys, I’m in love with
two.” One has hair of silvery gray, The other’s is just like gold. One
is gay and youthful, While the other is bent and old. But dearer than
life are they both to me - From neither would I part. One is my mother,
God bless her, I love her, the other is my sweetheart.

GROSS: That’s Loudon Wainwright, from his new double-CD, “High, Wide and
Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.” Wainwright will be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright. His new
double-CD pays tribute to the old-time, country-music banjo player and
singer, Charlie Poole. It’s called “High Wide and Handsome.”

The Charlie Poole tribute has some original songs that you wrote as
tributes to Charlie Poole or in the manner of the kind of song that he
performed, and one of the songs is called “Rowena,” and I think it’s
really in the spirit of the sentimental songs on this CD, and there’s a
great story behind it that I’d like you to tell.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. “Rowena” is Rowena Long Taylor, who was my
maternal grandmother. When my mother died in 1997, I found myself doing
what a lot of people do, and that is going through filing cabinets and
boxes and her stuff, and I found some letters that her father, Walter
Taylor, wrote. I guess you could call them courting letters.

He was trying to woo Rowena Long and wrote these letters, and the
interesting thing was that there weren’t any replies from her in this b
box of letters or this envelope of letters. It was all his letters, and
he was really trying to get her to marry him, but I was struck by the
letters. They were, again, that old-fashioned quality. I mean, there
were expressions in it like: Yours to hand this a.m., and the whole
world has gone back on me.

So I kind of took some of those things, and we put them in the song, and
that’s basically the story.

GROSS: And just one more thing before we hear the song. Did you write a
different kind of melody for this song because the words were from
another era? Did you write a melody that you felt suited another era?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I didn’t. I wrote the melody myself, and I don’t think
of myself as a good enough musician to kind of pigeonhole an area and
write to it. I just, you know, picked up the guitar and wrote what I
thought would work with the lyrics.

GROSS: Well, I love this song. This is “Rowena,” and this is from Loudon
Wainwright’s new CD, “High, Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole
Project.”

(Soundbite of song, “Rowena”)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Rowena, my darling, please don’t let me down.
A few words from you can lift me off the ground. Your letters are
treasures. You don’t know their worth. When I don’t receive one, I fall
back to Earth.

Rowena, my darling, please don’t let me down - A few words from you can
lift me off the ground. Your letters are treasures, you don’t know their
worth. Days I don’t receive one, I fall back to earth. Rowena, my
darling, just a word or two - It means the world to me, those few words
from you. But when you don’t send them, why can’t you see? It’s as if
the whole world had gone back on me. Tonight when I’m sleeping, I will
dream of you - Wishfully thinking, what else can I do? Then in the
morning, it’s always the same, When dreaming is done, then I call out
your name. Tonight when I’m sleeping, I will dream of you - Wishfully
thinking, what else can I do? Until tomorrow, I can only hope For my
heart’s deliverance in an envelope. Rowena, my dear, yours to hand this
a.m. - I’m holding your letter, in heaven again. A few words from me
now, to make sure you know, As ever, I’m yours, yes, and I love you so.

GROSS: That’s Loudon Wainwright, a song he co-wrote with Dick Connette,
and that’s featured on the new Loudon Wainwright CD, “The Charlie Poole
Project: High, Wide and Handsome.”

That’s really so lovely. Don’t you wish that your grandparents knew that
you had taken your grandfather’s letters to your grandmother and made a
song out of them?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I do. My mother’s twin sister, Mary Taylor, her married
name is Bassio(ph), is still alive, and as soon as I wrote that song, I
sent it to her. So she got to hear it, at least.

GROSS: You describe those letters as courting letters. Did you ever
write love letters?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Maybe love postcards. I don’t know if I ever wrote a
love letter. I might have. I can’t – I might have.

GROSS: “The Charlie Poole Project” CDs that you’ve done have such a nice
range of songs, and we’ve heard, like, a really lovely sentimental song
that you wrote. We heard one that Charlie Poole used to sing a lot, but
there’s novelty songs on here, too, and I thought it would be fun to
hear one of the novelty songs, especially since you first became famous
for a novelty song in 1972, “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.”

So were you influenced by any of the Charlie Poole novelty songs before
you wrote that?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I think I was. You know, I love novelty songs and
people who can write funny songs or people who do funny songs, and
Charlie Poole did a lot of novelty songs, some of which are on this
record, others, you know, aren’t. But when I mentioned earlier “The
Hungry Hash House Blues,” that’s a novelty song, and – but you know,
whether it’s Tom Lehrer or Charlie Poole or Allan Sherman, I mean…

GROSS: Allan Sherman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I love Allan Sherman. Are you kidding me?

GROSS: “My Son, the Folk Singer”?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Oh man, I love that stuff, and all that stuff, you know,
and I still try to write novelty songs and do and love to make audiences
laugh when I do my shows.

So the Poole novelty songs, we paid real close attention to and picked
some of what we thought were the best.

GROSS: So I’ve chosen to play “The Man Who Rode the Mule Around the
World.” Tell us why you like this one.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Oh man, I don’t know. It’s just so ridiculous as – and
that’s a feature of any great novelty song. It has to be a little bit
ridiculous. I’m not even sure what it means, but Dick probably would
know more about it than I do, but we just liked it. So we recorded it.

GROSS: Okay, here it is, from Loudon Wainwright’s new CD, “High, Wide
and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”

(Soundbite of song, “The Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World”)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I promised to meet her when the clock struck
twenty-three, Down in the village just four miles out of town. She runs
the local tavern and the liquor’s always free, But the pickles sell for
nineteen cents a pound. Oh she’s my daisy, she’s black-eyed and she’s
crazy - The prettiest girl I thought I ever saw. Now her breath smells
sweet, but I’d rather smell her feet, For she’s my freckle-faced
consumptive Sara Jane He’s the man who rode the mule around the world.
He’s the man who rode the mule around the world. I rode in Noah’s ark
and I’m as happy as a lark - I’m the man who rode the mule around the
world I was born about ten thousand years ago…

GROSS: That’s Loudon Wainwright, from his double-CD, “High, Wide and
Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.” Loudon, I’m glad you said you
didn’t really understand what that song was about because I certainly
don’t, either, but it sure is fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: When you were in your teens or 20s, did you think you would be an
old-timey musician, as opposed to writing your own songs - or a folk
musician, singing traditional ballads?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I mean, often you find my things in the folk section.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a folk singer, although when I
was in boarding school, and the folk boom happened, I definitely got
into it. I mean, I was a fan of – in addition to being a huge fan of
people like Bob Dylan, I was a huge fan of the Holy Modal Rounders and
the New Lost City Ramblers, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, you know, these
bands that use this old-timey source, along with jazz and blues, and
made it kind of contemporary.

So I wasn’t in a lot of rock and roll bands. I was in jug bands and
things when I was in school. So that particular niche is – I love that
stuff. So it kind of makes sense that I would make this record, I
suppose.

BLOCK: Loudon Wainwright will be back in the second half of the show.
His new double-CD is called “High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole
Project.” Here’s Charlie Poole’s 1930 recording of a song we heard
Wainwright perform, “Movin’ Day.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “Moving Day”)

Mr. CHARLIE POOLE (Musician): (Singing) Landlord said this morning to
me, give your key, this flat ain’t free. I can’t get no rent out of you.
Pack up your rags and skidoo, you.

I’ve been waiting ‘til my Bill come home. He’s my honey from the
honeycomb. He’ll have money ‘cuz he told me so this morning because it’s
moving day, moving day. I rip the carpet, and I’ll mop the floors, close
your water stove and out the door because moving day, pack your folding
bed and get away. If you spend every cent, you can live out in a tent,
it’s moving day.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with singer and
songwriter Loudon Wainwright. He's also an actor who’s appeared in "40
Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up."

Wainwright's new double CD pays tribute to the old-time country banjo
player and singer Charlie Poole. It's called "High Wide and Handsome:
The Charlie Poole Project," and it features Wainwright performing songs
recorded by Poole in the 1920s and ‘30s as well as a few new ones
inspired by Poole.

Wainwright told me how he started listening to folk music.

Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT (Singer-Songwriter): My dad had a great record
collection and it was very eclectic. I mean he had Lerner and Loewe, and
Rodgers and Hart, and Frank Loesser records, which I listened to as a
kid, and then - but he also had Huddie Ledbetter, and you know, Kid Ory,
and jazz records, and somehow a Joan Baez record came into the house,
and I heard that.

And then, you know, that led to hearing the Kingston Trio, and then by
that time the folk music thing had really started and I heard Pete
Seeger and then got real, real in deep and listened to Ramblin' Jack
Elliott, who became my first gigantic hero.

I mean my guitar playing is all comes from Jack Elliott and I would take
weekends from this boarding school and go see Jack Elliott at the Second
Fret in Philadelphia, in fact.

So the five guitar chords that I know are the ones that I learned when I
was 15 and I learned them, you know, from listening to Jack Elliott and
all those people that I mentioned.

GROSS: Did you go through different identity periods when you were deep
into folk music as opposed to when you were mostly performing your own
songs, trying to figure out who you really were as a person and as a
performer?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: When I was trying to find myself, as we used to call it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, yeah, I wore, you know, in boarding school, of
course, I wore blue jeans and tried to grow my sideburns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Was constantly being told to cut them. But - so I was,
you know, rebelling in that environment. And then when I made my first
record, I adopted that persona. I had short hair on the cover and I was
wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt and gray flannel trousers, so I kind of
reached back and took the preppy psycho killer look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And then that was the first album that I did. So, you
know, when I was in boarding school I rebelled against it and then I
later went back and used it for my debut.

GROSS: So I want to play another song from your "Charlie Poole Project"
CD, and this is, you know, we’ve been talking about you doing songs that
were kind of out of character. Here's another one. It's a beautiful
spiritual that I've never heard before...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...called "Beautiful," and it's a simple sweet melody and you’re
probably one of the last people I'd think of as singing an old
spiritual, but that's because of the very contemporary autobiographical
songs that you’re known for. But I'm sure you really connect with this
song in some way, so would you talk about how you connect with it?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, Dick Connette felt that it was important to have
this element to the record, you know, in addition to the parlor stuff
and the novelty songs and the train songs and the letter songs.

Poole never recorded this song, "Beautiful," but he is reported to have
sung it and it and other kind of gospel songs, so Dick felt we needed to
have that religious element, which I initially resisted. The boarding
school that I referred to was an Episcopal boarding school. I don’t go
to church anymore. I haven't for years.

But the song - and there's another one, actually, that my friend
Chaim(ph) Tannenbaum sings, "The Great Reaping Day." Both of these songs
are very beautiful, and "Beautiful," the song "Beautiful," is really
beautiful, and I was happy to sing it.

GROSS: Was it nice to have an excuse to sing a song you that you
normally wouldn’t do?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I guess it was. I mean it’s - you know, you get
set in your persona, you know? So to sing a gospel song, I love gospel
music and I (unintelligible) you know, whether it's blue grass or black
gospel music, I mean I'm - it’s great stuff and - but I would never, I
guess I would never have gotten the opportunity to do it had we not done
this record.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear it? This is an 1897 song by Barney E. Warren.
Again, somebody I've never heard of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, Barney. Who knew that people were called Barney in
the 1800s?

GROSS: Oh yeah, so true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: Good point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So here's Loudon Wainwright from his new double CD, "High Wide
and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project."

(Soundbite of song, "Beautiful")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Beautiful robe so white, beautiful land of
light, beautiful home so bright, where there shall come no night.
Beautiful crown I’ll wear, shining with stars o’er there. Yonder in
mansion fair. Gather us there.

Beautiful robes, beautiful land, beautiful home, beautiful band;
beautiful crown, shining so fair; beautiful mansion bright, gather us
there.

LUCY WAINWRIGHT ROCHE (Singer): (Singing) Beautiful thought to me, we
shall forever be. Thine in eternity, when from this world we’re free;
free from its toil and care, heavenly joys to share. Let me cross over
there. This is my prayer.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Beautiful robes, beautiful land...

GROSS: That's just so lovely, and I'm just kind of grateful - by doing
this "Charlie Poole Project" it's given you an opportunity to sing songs
like this, which a kind of hard-bitten cynical songwriter like you would
probably never do. And that's why - I guess that's one of the nice
things about old songs like that, is that they let us express things
that we'd feel are just too...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Expressive or...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...heartfelt. Yeah. Yeah. I agree with you. I mean I
think that was one of the best things about doing this record. And also,
you know, I got to sing with other great singers. I mean on "Beautiful"
you had Maggie and Suzzy and Dave Roche, and my...

GROSS: Oh, they sound great. I know. I know.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And my daughter, of course, Lucy Wainwright Roche, sings
the second verse, so it was a perfect thing to sing with those people,
because we are a family and that’s a - that music is done nicely with -
in the family setting.

GROSS: I see the rhymes are so simple - like white and bright that rhyme
together. I mean, I don’t know if you'd allow yourself to do something
like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter, and actor Loudon Wainwright. His
new double CD is called "High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole
Project."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright. His new
double CD pays tribute to the old-time country music banjo player and
singer Charlie Poole. It's called "High Wide and Handsome."

You know, it's interesting - this CD, which features songs from the late
1800s and early 1900s, comes on the heels of an album you did a year or
two ago called "Recovery."

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And what you recovered in there was your own old songs, the songs
that you wrote for your first few albums.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: And so, like you’re recent projects have been mining the past,
your personal past, and the past of popular music history.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I guess...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I better start going forward again soon, I hope.

GROSS: No. But they are - I think they are moving you forward in an
unexpected way. But anyway, do you think that there's something in
particular that has led you to look backwards at your past and popular
music's past?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Hmm. Yeah, I would imagine, and it could be the fact
that, you know, I'm getting older. I think that it's a natural tendency.
I'm going to be 63 in September. You do have a tendency to look back as
you, as time runs out, I think. And whether it's back to my old material
or this very old material that predates me, I think that maybe that's a
tendency as one advances toward the end.

GROSS: What...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Woo.

GROSS: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Oh, sorry about that, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you think you learned about yourself as a songwriter by
rerecording your early songs?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: That was a really interesting thing to do with my friend
Joe Henry, who produced that record. You know, my first album I made,
the first couple of albums I made were, the singer on that record is a
completely different singer. My voice was much, much higher and kind of
keening, scary quality, which was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...which was great, and again, people paid attention to
it. But now I've been singing for 40-something years. It was really
interesting to go back and record those songs, because some of them I
had continued to do, but some of them I hadn’t done anymore for years,
and they're good songs.

I mean the guy that wrote those songs, which happens to be me, was a
good songwriter. But I felt, or we felt, Joe and I did, that I was a
completely different singer, so there wasn’t anything redundant about it
or we really did kind of rediscover some material and then record it
again. It felt - it was an interesting project, that one.

GROSS: I want to ask you to choose a song from that album that you were
glad to have the chance to sing again.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Wow. Let's see. Well, you know, "Motel Blues" is a song
that I have continued to sing. I mean I wrote it when I was 25 and it
has lines in it like: Come up to my motel room and save my life. You
know, and they used to work great, those lines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: It was a, you know, I got into the business to meet
women and that was a really important song for me. But now, of course,
if a 62-year-old guy sings...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...it has a whole kind of lurid, desperate quality which
I find very compelling. So let's hear that one.

GROSS: Okay, great. But I want to say, you know, earlier I'd asked you
if you wrote love letters like the love letters your grandfather wrote
to your grandmother...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that you set to music. And maybe what you’re saying is you
didn’t have love letters, but you had some good lines...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you could use.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Pick-up song. Right.

GROSS: Pick up songs. Okay. So let's hear this one, and this is an early
song by Loudon Wainwright that's featured on his recent album,
"Recovery."

(Soundbite of song, "Motel Blues")

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) In this town television shuts off at two. What
can a lonely rock and roller do? Oh the bed's so big and the sheets are
clean and your girlfriend said that you were 19 and the Styrofoam ice
bucket is full of ice. Come up to my motel room, treat me nice.

I don't wanna make no late night New York calls. And I don't wanna stare
at them ugly grass-matte walls. Chronologically you know you're young
but when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue. I'll write a song
for you. I'll put it on my new LP. Come up to my motel room, sleep with
me.

GROSS: That's Loudon Wainwright from his CD "Recovery," which came out
last year and it features songs he has rerecorded from early in his
career.

Now, you grew up with show tunes in addition to folk music, and jazz and
blues and rock and roll. What influence do you think they had on you?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: A big influence. Again, this record collection that my
father had, I mean we were listening to "Guys and Dolls" and "South
Pacific," and you know, the original cast recordings of all those great
Broadway shows, and my sister and brother and I were kind of prancing
around the living room in our pajamas at, you know, as a little kids,
you know, eight, nine-year-olds. And I’m sure I absorbed a lot of that
stuff. I mean, the quality of the writing in those songs is just so
strong. And when I, myself, was kind of discovered at the Gaslight in
the late ‘60s - which Gaslight was a club in the Greenwich Village - the
guy who actually walked up to me and gave me his card and said, call me
kid, was – is a man called Milton Kramer who at that time was running
Frank Music, which was Frank Loesser’s publishing company.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: So that really had – and I of course knew and loved
Frank Loesser. And at that time, when I went up to see Mil Kramer, Frank
Loesser was in the hospital, actually he was dying of lung cancer. But
Mil kept saying, I’ve got to get you in to meet Frank because I think he
would love to know that, you know, there are young writers who are – who
were influenced by him. Unfortunately, I never got to actually meet
Frank Loesser, but it was a great thing to be signed to Frank Music.

GROSS: Wow, yeah. That, I…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: …that’s kind of an amazing story. And Frank Loesser wrote words
and music, like you do.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Phew – yeah. And I mean, he wrote - yeah, he was -
not many people could do that. I mean write those incredible melodies
and the lyrics.

GROSS: My guest is singer-songwriter and actor, Loudon Wainwright. His
new double-CD is called “High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole
Project.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright. His new
double-CD pays tribute to the old-time country music banjo player and
singer, Charlie Poole. It’s called “High Wide and Handsome.”

Let me quote something that you wrote, I think for a speech that you
gave. I’m not sure. I found it on the Internet and I really couldn’t
help where it was from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …but you wrote, I didn’t want to be a writer. It seemed hard,
boring and above all, lonely. As a kid growing up, I saw my journalist
father at work, torturing himself while writing, trying to write and
worst of all, not writing. He was a famous and successful columnist and
editor for Life magazine and was in fact a fine writer. Unfortunately,
he suffered from a streak of sado-masochism that runs in our family and
succumbed to a prejudice held by many journalists, namely that writers
aren’t real writers unless they produce books. But the books my father
wanted to write refused to be written. Can you talk a little bit about
what image you got of writing from watching your father torture himself
trying to write books?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, he thought that he or he felt that he had to, you
know, he – his contemporaries were Updike and Bellow and Philip Roth and
these were the kind of – that, you know, when they were the young Turks
and just writing those books and stories that were – that I guess he
wanted to be doing that, but he was a journalist. And he wrote for Life,
although the first thing that he ever got published was in The New
Yorker, a great short story that he wrote, which probably, you know, in
1948 or something like that. But he had a family and kids and he got a
job at Life, during the great, great years of Life magazine. But I think
that there was a lot of regret that he wasn’t writing short stories and
of course novels.

So – as a kid, it was tough to see because there was a – you know he
felt that he wasn’t doing what he should’ve been doing. And I felt - I
think what I was trying to say in that - was actually a speech that I
gave at an Ohio university that thing that you quoted, that you read
from. What I was trying to say was, you know, he didn’t – it was a pity
that he didn’t feel good enough about what he was doing, which was
writing these great columns.

He wrote - the name of his column was The View From Here. And he could
write about anything he wanted to. And he wrote about politics. He wrote
about his personal stuff was just incredible. I mean, there’s a column
he wrote about our dog dying. Our dog - this would’ve been in 1972. And
he – it just - you’re weeping by the end of it. I mean I am. And then I
send it to everybody who ever had a dog that died. I mean, he was a
very, very good writer. And I just wished that he enjoyed that more and
felt secure in that more and didn’t beat himself up, as we can do, about
what he didn’t do.

GROSS: Was writing songs for you ever a beating-yourself-up process? Did
it have a kind of pain that you associated your father having with his
writing?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. And I think that was – I was lucky in that regard. I
mean, writing a song is – it’s three minutes. I mean, you can knock one
off pretty quickly. I mean, a great song is as powerful as a great short
story, certainly. But somehow that was my way in. I thought I was going
to be an actor. After I went to that boarding school, I went to drama
school to study to be an actor. I wanted to be a performer, I knew that.
I didn’t think I was going to be a writer. But I found out that I could
write. You know, maybe it was a genetic thing, you know, I could write.
And I didn’t feel threatened by songwriting. It just seemed much less
scary than the, you know, the page and the typewriter that he had to
face.

GROSS: Well, you’ve become something of an actor, thanks in part to Judd
Apatow…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: …who cast you in his TV series “Undeclared” you were in “Knocked
Up.” What else have you been in of his? Am I missing something?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I have a - I married the couple at the end of the
“40 Year Old Virgin.”

GROSS: Oh, right, right.

MR. WAINWRIGHT: …yeah. And – occasionally I get an acting job and that’s
nice and fun, too.

GROSS: You’re actually living in LA now. And I picture you as such a not
LA person. How have you adapted?

MR. WAINWRIGHT: I’m not quite sure. It’s a very – we live way out on the
outskirts of LA in Woodland Hill, California. But, occasionally I’ll go
into town to try to get an acting job.

GROSS: You have a nice song about LA, called “Grey in LA.”

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: That’s on the soundtrack from “Knocked Up.” Well, it - songs from
the movie and inspired by the film. And the album is actually…

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Right.

GROSS: …called “Strange Weirdos.”

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GROSS: But it’s a really nice song. Why don’t you say a few words about
it, then we’ll play it.

MR. WAINWRIGHT: “Grey in LA,” yeah, well, that’s that thing of - I talk
about in this song. I talk about the cruelty of LA, you know. It is the
cruelest town, I’d say. But - and you’re in a car all the time and the
weather, you know, is kind of unrelenting. The blue California weather
and it’s just - all that stuff is in the song. The bitterness of being
an actor is in the song, in a sense. But - and when it does rain, it
feels great. And then the mudslides start in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: It doesn’t…

GROSS: I shouldn’t laugh, I’m sorry.

MR. WAINWRIGHT: It’s a terrible place. It’s a biblically - you know, I
mean, it’s - there’s always something terrible happening there. And of
course now, they don’t have any money there. So, it just gets worse and
worse. I’ve got to move.

GROSS: Well, in the meantime, this is “Grey in LA” from the album
“Strange Weirdos,” songs from the soundtrack of the film “Knocked Up”
and inspired by them.

(Soundbite of song, “Grey in LA”)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) When it’s grey in LA, I sure like it that way.
Cause there’s way too much sunshine around here. I don’t know about you
I get so sick of blue skies, wherever they always appear. And I sure
love the sound of the rain pouring down on my carport roof made out of
tin. If there’s a flood then there’s gonna be mudslides, we all have to
pay for our sin. And I suppose that they’ll close canyon roads. And the
freeways will all start to clog. And the waters will rise and you won’t
be surprised, when your whole house smells like your wet dog. When it’s
grey in LA, it’s much better that way. It reminds you that this town's
so cruel. Yeah it might feel like fun when you’re sporting sunglasses.
But really you’re just one more fool.

GROSS: That’s a song by Loudon Wainwright called “Grey in LA.” I want to
close with another song from your album “High Wide and Handsome: The
Charlie Poole Project,” and this is the title track which you wrote. And
so, tell us what inspired the song.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: “High Wide and Handsome” is an expression that I heard
growing up because my mother, I mentioned, was from South Georgia. I
think it’s a Southern expression. And I think generally when people say
or use that expression, they’re thinking of prosperous and wealthy and
good looking and doing well. I think Poole - Charlie Poole was reported
to have – he said that he wanted to die, go out high wide and handsome.
He drank himself to death.

I mean, he died at the age of 38, and his – he had a kind of grisly end.
I think it was a 13-week alcohol binge that killed him. So, almost the
opposite of high wide and handsome, but the song has a – I wanted to
kind of tap into what I thought his bravado might have been his, you
know, his alcoholic bravado. And so, I think I had all those things in
mind when I wrote it.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright, it’s really been great to talk with you again.
Thank you so much.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Great talking to you, Terry. Thanks for having me back.

Loudon Wainwright’s new double-CD is called “High Wide and Handsome: The
Charlie Poole Project.” I’m Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, “High Wide and Handsome”)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) High wide and handsome - that’s how I like
livin. High wide and handsome - that’s how life should be. Low skinny
and ugly - that’s for other people. High wide and handsome suits me to
a T. Song, wine, and women - they’re my 3 favorites. Beer, gin, and
whiskey - that’s 5, 6, and 4. Saturday night I like eatin’ and dancin’.
And I sleep all day Sunday so’s I’m ready for more. High wide and
handsome - you can’t take it with you. High wide and handsome - that’s
one way to go. Let’s live it up - might as well, we’re all dying. High
wide and handsome - let’s put on a show.
..COST:
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..INDX:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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