Carrying the family mantle can be a tough thing, but Loudon Wainwright III has proven time and again over the years that he’s got some sturdy shoulders. We caught up with LW3 back in February in advance of his performance at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival. If you missed him then, you’ll have another chance this Sunday as the legendary singer-songwriter takes the stage on the final day of the Philly Folk Festival. This interview originally ran in the February 2014 issue of Fly Magazine.
Living up to familial expectations is tough for a son when his father is the type of person who regularly hob-knobbed with the likes of astronaut John Glenn and Frank Sinatra. But under the circumstances, Loudon Wainwright III has done a pretty good job of making a name for himself.
With heartfelt and humorous lyrics about deterioration and death, Wainwright has firmly established himself among the pantheon of folk music royalty, overcoming the shadow of his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., a well-known editor at Life magazine who had his own monthly column, “The View From Here,” and interviewed everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Marilyn Monroe.
Over the course of five decades and 22 studio albums, Wainwright has written some of the most personal and biting songs in the history of the genre. He was one of the first musicians to carry the label of “the next Bob Dylan,” and his most well known song, “Dead Skunk” – famously written in less than 15 minutes – made the Billboard Top 20 in 1973.
Wainwright won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk Album for the record High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, performing the works of the great North Carolina banjo player from the 1930s. He also made cameo appearances in movies like Big Fish and The 40 Year Old Virgin and scored the soundtrack to the comedy Knocked Up.
As a way to commemorate the memory of his father, who died in 1988 at the age of 63, the 67-year-old Wainwright released his latest album, Older Than My Old Man Now, in 2012. He called on the help of musician friends Chris Smither and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (whom he has called a father figure) and his family – including son Rufus Wainwright; daughters Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lexie Kelly Wainwright; and his ex-wife, Suzzy Roche – to create an album that’s loaded with family stories and spoken-word editorials written by his father.
Wainwright headlines this month’s inaugural Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival. We caught up with him from his home in New York City.
Fly Magazine: What are some of the most important lessons you learned from your father that translated to your own musical career?
Loudon Wainwright III: He was not a writer of music, although he did write a couple of songs. He was primarily a journalist. But writing was very important to him, and he taught me things like clarity and beginning, middle and end. I was greatly affected by him in all kinds of ways – I appreciate that more and more the older I get. He’s been dead for over 25 years, but he was a huge influence – especially the way I write my own songs.
FM: Did you get any of your sense of humor from him?
LW: I suspect so. Both of my parents had a pretty good sense of humor. He could be a very funny guy. Despite being a writer, which is kind of a solitary pursuit, he was gregarious and went to parties and had parties and liked to make people laugh – being the center of attention. I’ve inherited all of that from him.
FM: What’s it been like for you to be able to incorporate your family into many of your recording projects?
LW: I’ve written about my family for years and years – parents, sisters, brothers, kids and ex-wives. And in Older Than My Old Man Now, I included two actual pieces of writing that my dad did. It was a wonderful posthumous collaboration. In the show I’m doing now, I’m using his actual columns. So I’m connecting and combining a little bit of my work with his work.
FM: Is that a project you had been planning for a while?
LW: It had occurred to me a couple years ago. I reread all his columns, and I started to remember the ones I liked the most. I have a [theater] show called Surviving Twin, which I performed in at a theater down in Chapel Hill, NC, in September. I did six performances of this theater piece combining my songs with his writings. When I come down to Lancaster, I’m not going to do that show, but I will incorporate parts of it into the performance.
FM: What is it about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott that has made you consider him a father figure?
LW: I was just a huge fan, and as a teenager I loved to see him perform. He’s a wonderful singer and guitar player and all-around entertainer. He’s a key figure in the world of guys with guitars – acoustic guitars, anyway. He’s a hero, so it was delightful to actually collaborate with him on “Double Lifetime” on the last album. I know Jack and have met him over the years – I just pursued him, pinned him down and caught him when he was in Los Angeles. We went into a little recording studio and just did the song.
FM: Have you been recording any new songs lately?
LW: I’m working on an album now and have been for some months – going very slowly and carefully. I’m enjoying the process, and hopefully this year another album will escape.
FM: What kind of direction is the new album taking?
LW: It’s hard to describe what direction it is. It’s going to sound different from the last couple of albums. Let’s put it this way – there are a little more drums on this one. Look forward to hearing some more drums.
FM: You won a Grammy for High Wide & Handsome while paying tribute to Charlie Poole. Is there another musician you would like to do a similar project who you feel hasn’t received their proper recognition?
LW: There are certainly a lot of musicians who need more recognition, but the Charlie Poole thing was pretty much a one-off. Actually it was [producer] Dick Connette’s idea – a great idea. I’m not thinking about another type of record like that, but you never know what can happen.
FM: Have you actively taken a “go with the flow” attitude with your career?
LW: That’s pretty much it. Generally, I continue to write a bunch of songs every couple of years, and then I wind up working with somebody as a producer. It’s all about what seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s how I would characterize my career. There’s no kind of grand plan about it – really just writing the songs, going into the recording studio every once in a while and then doing the shows. This thing I’m doing with my dad’s work is new and different, so I’m excited by that. I’m happy to do things that I’m interested in, which is a great luxury.
FM: Besides music, what other things are you interested in?
LW: I like to go sailing – that’s about it. I’ve got a new boat this year that’s a bit bigger – a 27-foot called a Cape Dory pocket cruiser. I’ve only been sailing for about 12 years, so I’m a beginner at that. But I enjoy it.
FM: You’re known for the song “Dead Skunk.” What’s the worst smell you’ve ever smelled?
LW: There was a woman who got on the bus the other night in New York. She clearly had not bathed. It was bad. People were getting off the bus. I don’t want to go into the details. She was homeless, and it was kind of sad, actually. That’s one that comes to mind. I moved to the back of the bus and opened a window.
Loudon Wainwright III plays the closing concert at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival (1323 Salford Station Rd., Schwenksville) alongside Jason Isbell, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sarah Jarosz and more on Sunday, August 17. Single-day tickets and weekend passes available. All ages. Click here for tickets.