When Steve Earle was in the KEXP studio yesterday, playing songs and talking about the life of Townes Van Zandt, he also praised another great songwriter: Loudon Wainwright III. Mere coincidence? Probably not. Wainwright is performing in Seattle tomorrow night (at the Moore Theatre), and I’d played one of his recordings on-air while Earle was in the building. But Wainwright deserves all the attention he can get. And lately he’s been getting a fair share again.
Before he launched his career as a folk singer and songwriter in the late ’60s, Wainwright studied drama. Throughout his career, he’s continued acting; my first exposure to him came not via music, but his recurring role on M*A*S*H. More recently, he’s gotten plum roles from Judd Apatow, with featured parts in Undeclared, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Knocked Up. Working with Joe Henry, he also performed the soundtrack to the latter, exposing a younger audience to his music.
“I’m exposed to them… like a dirty old man,” says Wainwright with a chuckle. But he has noticed a drop in the median age of his concert crowds. “I will often sell my CDs after the show, and so there’s a line of people. And I’m sometimes shocked and delighted that they are younger folks.” Invariably, they mention his film and TV ventures. “The Judd Apatow connection has definitely given my career a nice little bump,” he adds.
Having three children in show business helps, too. Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche, have helped keep the family name in the public eye. Whatever the reason, Loudon is grateful for receptive listeners. “I’m delighted to have anybody there, and happy to be adored by anyone.”
Neophytes curious to learn more about Wainwright’s craft as a songwriter could do worse than to start with last year’s Recovery. At the prompting of Henry, the singer recorded updated versions of thirteen older songs. Plucked from his first four albums, originally issued between 1970 and 1973, these readings of autobiographical originals like “Be Careful There’s A Baby In The House” and “Saw Your Name in the Paper” are enhanced by new, full-band arrangements — and the benefit of several decades worth of experience.
“It was never a terrifying prospect, but it was often interesting,” says Wainwright, apropos of revisiting his back catalog. “In the passage of thirty five years, the songs have a different resonance.” The infamous “Motel Blues,” for instance, took on a whole new character. “When you’re singing ‘Come up to my motel room and save my life,’ when you’re 62, it’s different than when you’re singing it when you’re 25. It has a different resonance. More desperation, perhaps.”
“It was a bit like covering another writer… who happens to be me,” he adds. “But I like him. I think he’s a good writer. And I like the way the songs are written. I’d forgotten about a lot of them. ‘The Movies Are Mother To Me,’ or ‘Read It In the Paper,’ or ‘The Drinking Song,’ I haven’t sung those songs in decades until we covered them.”
In the process of making Recovery, Wainwright was startled by how much certain themes in his work hadn’t changed, even with the passage of time. “My concerns as a songwriter, some of them anyway, have stayed much the same,” he observes. “I was concerned about getting old even when I was young.” He rattles off lyrics from “New Paint” and “School Days,” where even in his 20’s, he was already reminiscing about youth, and dreading the onset of maturity. “I’m still writing about all that, here at the end, as I’m rounding third base. It’s interesting that I’ve always has this interest in mortality and getting older.”
For his next album, Wainwright is reaching even further back in the annals of time; he’s just finishing work a record of songs popularized by Charlie Poole, a legendary old-time country singer and banjo player who died in 1931. Who knows, maybe this time he’ll usher folks through the opposite end of the time machine. If you wind up alongside a bunch of spry octogenarians while waiting for tickets to that inevitable Judd Apatow movie marathan, thank Loudon Wainwright III.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog. You can now follow DJ El Toro on Twitter!