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In the school of American musical satire, Loudon Wainwright III is the dean, less because he's written topical songs and more because he's turned his wit inward. Somehow, he's transformed his private foibles and joys into the hard-polished mirrors of songs. In them, we simply recognize ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to look. After 40 years of music, he hasn't lost the touch. In 2010, Wainwright won a Grammy for his affectionate, wide-ranging homage to the great North Carolina songster Charlie Poole and followed that collection with the scathing 10 Songs for the New Depression. The title might seem to say it all, but on the phone in New York, Wainwright had more to say — about Poole, songwriting, satire and his famously musical family.
Roy Kasten: You recently won a Grammy for High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. When did you first hear Poole?
Loudon Wainwright III: I probably heard him for the first time in the early '70s. I became an instant fan. Thirty-something years later my friend Dick Connette had an idea about inhabiting his world by embarking on what we called the Charlie Poole Project. I don't know how much you know about him, but he was a remarkable, yet relatively unknown American artist, singer, band leader and banjo player.
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Did that project feed into your new record?
He was certainly a Depression-era artist. He died in 1931, but his active years were 1926 to '31. Those were pretty tough years, though maybe the Depression hadn't super kicked in yet. But with 10 Songs for the New Depression, I started to write those songs in January of 2009. The first track, "Times Is Hard," was written right after the presidential inaugural. My intention was to track a year of that in song. I thought maybe I'd write a song a month, but I wound up with ten songs and took two songs from the old Depression.
It's maybe your funniest and bleakest album.
Funny and bleak, yes!
It's not exactly the soundtrack to Get Out the Vote.
No, it isn't. I hope I'm not too much of a pessimist. I like to think of myself as a realist. You know, the last song, "Middle of the Night," I hope has a positive tone. I guess it's not a happy-go-lucky record.
You're not afraid to make a liberal, NPR listener like myself uncomfortable.
Part of the job description for me is to make the audience uncomfortable. Not just about political things, but about personal things. I hope not in a gratuitous way. I think getting under people's skin is part of show business. I want to entertain people, but I also want to twitch them out a bit. So if I'm making you uncomfortable, that's a good thing.
You can go back to a song like "Motel Blues," where you're also getting under your own skin.
The frightening thing about that song is I recut it a couple of years ago. When a 63-year-old guy is singing, "Come up to my motel room, save my life," now you've got something going on. It's one thing to be 23 and singing that. Now it's about, "Come up to my motel room and show me how to work the Wi-Fi."
You've also done so much recording with your family, including the late Kate McGarrigle. Can you talk about making music in a family context?
The people at Shout! Factory are going to put out a box set of my stuff next year, and I've been working on that and writing liner notes. There are so many musicians. I was married to Kate, have a daughter with Suzzy Roche, and all four of my kids sing. Three out of four make records and have happening careers, certainly in the case of Rufus. So it feels like a dysfunctional von Trapp family. It's the spooky Sound of Music. Why it turned out that way, well, it wasn't intentional, but if you're a musician, and you have kids with musicians, the deck is stacked. There's probably been a guitar case in every room of their childhood.
How do you keep yourself interested as a performer?
It's very interesting to stand up in front of a room full of people in the dark. It's still exciting. I don't enjoy going to the airport or the hotels, but it feels like it's still important. At least for the 75 minutes that you're there. Something happens. You can have an effect on a group of people, and it can be a powerful thing. That's why I got into this racket in the first place. It's been 40-odd years, so I'm happy to still have a job, for now anyway.