NPR

A 'Handsome' Tribute From Loudon Wainwright

The latest project from famed singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is a double-album tribute to another musician entirely. Called High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, it's a celebration of the old-time country banjo player, who died in 1931.

Wainwright and producer Dick Connette dug into Charlie Poole's recordings -- and into Kinney Rorrer's biography, Ramblin' Blues -- eventually writing nine new songs about the life and times of a man they celebrate as a country-music pioneer.

Wainwright began his own career three decades after Poole's death, making a name for himself in the '60s with humorous and autobiographical songs. In 1972, on his Album III, he scored the Top 40 hit "Dead Skunk," and since then he's recorded 20 albums.

Wainwright co-wrote (with Joe Henry) the music for the film Knocked Up; as an actor, he's appeared in that film and many other movies and TV shows, from three episodes of the 1970s hit M*A*S*H to this summer's family comedy G-Force. His own family is famously musical: Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, both singer-songwriters, are Wainwright's children with ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, herself a noted folk singer.

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Transcript

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 was 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 says 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-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 - 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 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 era 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. I mean, 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, �Movin' Day�)

Mr. CHARLIE POOLE (Musician): (Singing) Landlord said this morning to me, give your key, this lot 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 up off the floors, close your oil 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. WAINWRIGHT: 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 - 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 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, that's what 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" CDs, and this is, you know, we've been talking about you doing songs that are 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, and I don't go to church anymore and haven't for years.

But the song - and there's another one, actually, that my friend Chaim Tannenbaum(ph) 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 - you know, whether it's bluegrass 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 that by doing this "Charlie Poole Project" it's given you an opportunity to sing songs like this, which a kind of hardbitten, 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, was it - like white and bright that rhyme together. I mean, I don't know if you'd allow yourself to do something like that.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah.

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 your 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'm going 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 is singing...

(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: Pickup songs. Right.

GROSS: Pickup 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 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.

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 Milt Kramer, Frank Loesser was in the hospital, actually he was dying of lung cancer. But Milt 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. Whew - yeah. And I mean, he wrote - yeah, he was -not many people could do that. I mean write those incredible melodies and the lyrics.

(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 tell what 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 sadomasochism 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, 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 - it 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 wish 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's 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, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...it doesn't feel so great.

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 'round 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 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 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.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright's new double CD is called �High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.� Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. 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 dyin'. High wide and handsome - let's put on a show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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