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Iron Will

Bonnie Prince' Billy is the alter ego of Will Oldham, who, along with Bill Callahan of Smog, is a crucial upholder of American folk tradition in modern popular music.

Oldham is a brilliant, intense guy who has spent his career mostly hiding under a veil of monikers. "I never felt comfortable with the idea of a record having to be attributed to someone," Oldham explains. Whether it came from celestial feelings on art or an aversion to spotlights, the Louisville native established himself as an underground antihero in the early '90s under several names that used the ironic word Palace (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, plain old Palace), with biting, pained and occasionally obscene lyrics over traditional mountain folk structures. Not a bad accomplishment for someone who picked up music relatively late in life. Then, for a time, he tried non-anonymity, dropping his by-then-buzzworthy pseudonym in 1997 and, for a spell, recorded under his given name.

But he chose to slip another mask over his face the following year and became Bonnie Prince' Billy. Oldham, tired of explaining his various aliases for a mystified press and fan base, says Billy will be a permanent stage handle. So who or what is Bonnie Prince' Billy? If you listen to the newest Billy record, Master and Everyone, he's a universal romantic. But if you listen to Oldham, never one for self-disclosure, Billy ain't nothing but a paycheck.

"Will Oldham eats food, he shits, he has a girlfriend . . . and he records albums under the name Bonnie Prince' Billy. It's that simple," says Oldham, who continues to live in Louisville.

Still, Oldham has shown himself over the course of four Billy albums to be a folkie's folk singer. The Billy albums carry Oldham's crackling tenor voice, which is world-weary but gentle, with a Civil War quality that sounds like it may have been drawn from acetates on file with the Smithsonian. Billy's also the conduit for some of Oldham's most personal songs, which increasingly touch on gender identity, desperation, isolation and the inability to absorb a good celebration.

The Oldham of Billy lore prefers simplicity, emphasizing harmony vocals and acoustic instrumentation, over the train wreck instrumentation that makes Conor Oberst, another under-the-radar behemoth, sound ridiculously pretentious by comparison. Billy's what the softer side of Neil Young aspires to be -- if Young brought "Cripple Creek Ferry" to the map, then Billy built the log cabin on the river basin. He even uses antiquated words, as in one melodic tune called "Maundering" (for the uninitiated, that means he's stumbling over himself trying to find the right words).

One catch: Oldham insists any swerve into a more pure rural folk that came with the coining of the Bonnie Prince' Billy name is coincidental. Yes, that is actually Oldham, bushy beard and weird eyes and all, in the Matthew Brady-style cover portrait to Master and Everyone.

While Oldham is quick to dispel any notions of character play, once you hear Oldham describe the origins of the name you want to momentarily believe there's more to Bonnie Prince' Billy. The moniker, Oldham says, was a good-humored play on 18th-century British exile Charles Edward Stuart (nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie) and on Nat "King" Cole (another starry-eyed crooner with a three-word performing name). "A friend pointed out to me that Billy the Kid's real name was William Bonney," he adds. Next, he mentions the saga of thrill-seeking bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. And then he talks about Prince -- yeah, that Prince -- and rambles a little about "appellation," the act of tacking a fancy name to something. A few seconds later, he says, "At one point in the Southwest, I bought a tape by an Indian named Bonifest Bonnie."

In that one response, we have a famed wanderer through the hills of Scotland, two misunderstood R&B singers, a couple of lost-soul outlaws of the Old West -- and a singing Native American. In the context of all that, Master and Everyone sounds like a soundtrack for an eternal wanderer, a guy who wants everything but never quite finds anything.

For as much as Oldham wants to be at one with the elements, however, he keeps ending up with a mouthful of dirt. Album closer "Hard Life" just finds him abandoned and, well, maundering -- "Wake up and I'm fine/With my dreaming still on my mind/But it don't take long to see/That the demon's to come and visit me."

Oldham paints such a rich, honest-sounding canvas that it comes as a surprise to find him so impenetrable about its inspirations. He refuses to prescribe meaning to his work -- after a while, the intent and the process of making the album become one, so that you lose sight of the deeper meaning eventually, according to his theory. "If it were a screenplay, no one would ask those questions," he says somewhat defensively. "I don't think when James Cameron writes and directs a movie, people confuse him with the Terminator. These are songs, and people like to listen to songs with personal subject matter in them."

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.

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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Christopher O'Connor