Iron Will

Will Oldham writes lovely, sad folk songs. Just don't let the stage name throw you off.

Try telling that to Oldham's friends, though. When Oldham first played the rough mixes of Master and Everyone for a roomful of close companions, he was stunned by the downtrodden reaction. "I just thought the whole thing was fucking depressing," he says. That got him caught up in whether anyone would actually buy a record full of perceived dirges (these songs are too gorgeous and lively to be dirges, consequently). Eventually, the same friends offered encouragement, and he forged ahead with the mixing.

"Usually, I don't get that kind of perspective," he says. "You know how sometimes if there's something really close to you, and you play it for other people, all of a sudden it sounds different to you?"

Oldham's continuing artistic growth is astounding when you consider he didn't even play music until he was 19. Before then, acting was his main creative outlet. Leaping forth from a repertory theater in his native Louisville, Oldham found himself with a major role as a preacher, both as an adolescent and elderly man, in John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan, a fictional account of a 1920s labor dispute involving coal miners in West Virginia. Yet by his late teens, Oldham was in a dramatic adolescent rut, not knowing where he belonged, not finding much satisfaction with life. Without music, he says he may have spiraled toward "homelessness and insanity." His younger brother Paul and older brother Ned, who help Will write, engineer and mix his albums, suggested music, and, "partly out of desperation," he says, he learned to play guitar.

An old folkie with young-man thoughts: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.
An old folkie with young-man thoughts: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.


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In the years since Bonnie Prince' Billy first appeared, Oldham, whose albums were initially quite raucous -- sometimes using drunken choirs, horns and big drums -- has grown quieter, to the point now where you hear the toe-tapping and creaks from the live takes. Oldham and his brothers went into the studio for Master and Everyone thinking they'd restore the energy of I See a Darkness and Ease Down the Road, the two previous efforts. Instead, Oldham found himself as isolated as his new songs' subjects over the course of 14 months. Again deflecting any genius from himself, Oldham cites an unusual source of inspiration for the sparseness.

"The single most influential recording in the making of this record was A Tender Look at Love by Roger Miller," he says. Miller is the "King of the Road" troubadour who in 1968 decided to take a detour and record that album of mostly covers. "It's a pretty spare-sounding record that still has a lot of feeling and warmth."

On record Oldham is so forthcoming at times that you'd think the warmth would translate into his personal being -- or at least into this conversation. Ask him in the final analysis what his post-Palace Bonnie Prince' Billy albums represent philosophically; he says only "I don't know" with a tone that makes you feel stupid for asking. He remains rigid until late in the interview. "Even If Love," from Master and Everyone, is dedicated to brilliant singer-songwriter and babe-for-intellectuals Polly Jean Harvey. Hmmmm... anything to that? Perhaps a tryst or encoded love letter? Nope.

"I felt I was actively ripping her off with that song," Oldham chortles.

The super-serious moniker man with the dark songbook has a sense of humor after all. Perhaps Oldham will find a way to write a song about it -- and find a way also to set up shop along that river basin and tell you how it makes him lonely, horny and longing for truth.

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