Smile Politely

Oldham visits a minor place

Will Oldham, who records folk-country songs under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is not a big fan of the press. My interview request was politely declined by his publicist, who is probably on the payroll largely to politely decline interview requests. But if you’d like to hear from Oldham himself, then I’d recommend reading the superb feature The New Yorker published on him in early January. It’s got all the info you could ever hope for, plus a few quotes from Will himself.

I was lucky to have come of age in the indie rock world about the same time that Oldham’s musical career sprung up in Louisville, Kentucky. I recall purchasing his debut seven inch, “Ohio River Boat Song” b/w “Drinking Woman,” from Reckless Records sometime in 1994, about a year after its release. I had never heard such odd Americana before. Plenty of people felt the same, and the cult of Will Oldham was born. Drag City released several of his records over the next few years, and his moniker seemed to change with each release: Palace Brothers, Palace, Palace Songs, Palace Music, then, finally, Will Oldham. In 1998, Bonnie “Prince” Billy was born, and has remained a relative constant since.

Oldham remains, in large part due to his own disinterest in speaking to the press, a bit of a puzzle. To quote him from his last album, Lie Down in the Light, “it’s as if we tried to know what we can’t really know.” Oldham’s living triumvirate of musical kings includes Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, and … R. Kelly, whose music video he has appeared in. He doesn’t understand why many deem his music weird. Yet his folksy songs could best can be described as a varied, wealthy collection of apocalyptic ballads, poetic remnants of relational disorder, ambiguous ramblings on spiritual themes, and perverse narratives (he did, after all, record a song titled “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick Is Hanging Out”). His stage antics aren’t quite as legendary as Chan Marshall’s of Cat Power, but nonetheless most fans have an Oldham concert story to share, like the time a friend saw him play during summertime in Pittsburgh in a sweaty, humid warehouse space, while wearing a parka fully zipped up, hood over head. Several years ago, the admired songwriter asked his rabid fans to vote on the songs to be included on his “greatest hits” album, then proceeded to shock them all by re-recording their selections of his earlier lo-fi catalog with a slick group of Nashville session musicians.

You expect Oldham to go left, he darts right. You look up, he’s ten feet under foot. I suppose it’s that continual confusion that keeps most folks coming back. But we shouldn’t neglect his music, of course, which is often sensational. And as he ages, his songs have become more polished, fully-formed attempts at finding some sort of crossover appeal. Lie Down in the Light is incredibly accessible, musically speaking; the one thing that keeps it at arm’s length is the one thing I love most about Oldham: his idiosyncratic lyrics. In the 1987 film Matewan, a teenage Oldham played the part of a boy preacher in a drama (based on real events) about a West Virginia coal-mining town struggling to unionize in 1920. He speaks a telling line, which in hindsight I can’t help but think influenced Oldham the lyricist on some level: “All we got is our misery, Joe Kenehan used to say, and the least we could do is share it.”

So, Oldham, who has a new record coming out next week on Drag City, is coming to the Independent Media Center tonight (Friday the 13th), to commence the sharing. He’ll be joined by a backing band, including recent band mate Emmett Kelly on guitar, Cheyenne Mize on violin (and singing back up), the exceptional Jim White (of Dirty Three fame) on drums, and bassist Josh Abrams. Brooklyn band Begushkin, best described as a freaky psych-folk band (think: Fairport Convention on acid), should prove an interesting opener.

So, what excuse could you possibly have for not going? Let’s see …

1. Rush-hour traffic on the river was a bitch, then the other bitch broke your heart.

“Ohio River Boat Song” (1993)

2. You’re feeling conflicted about your duty to serve your congregation, and, let’s be honest, the bottle doesn’t let you down.

“(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit” (1993)

3. Since you would have to pay to see Oldham, that would preclude the having of fun.

“New Partner” (1995)

4. You’re seeing things, buddy.

“I See a Darkness” (1999)

5. Your trip to the IMC was delayed, ’cause on the way you had to light a fire upon her booty.

“Ease on Down the Road” (2001)

6. You’ve got an appointment with the lord (in a pillar of fire).*

“I’ll Be Glad” (2008)

*Okay, to be fair, Oldham didn’t write this one, Shannon Stephens did. But he just as easily could have.

Before we go, here’s a video for the song “I Am Goodbye” from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s forthcoming album, Beware.

Doors open at 7 p.m. and show starts at 7:30. $15 advance tickets/$18 at the door. Click here to enter to win tickets for this performance.

Top photo by Lucia Stith; bottom photo by Steve Gullick

Related Articles