Category: Bonnie Prince Billy

Covered In Folk: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
(A New American Icon, from Dylan to Danzig, from Joe Pug to Johnny Cash)

May 20th, 2011 — 09:13 pm

An unusual double feature today, combining our two most popular focusing strategies: covers of, and covers by, a folkworld artist with whom the average folkfan is only partially or anecdotally familiar. As with all those who we tout, our feature subject deserves to rise above the constant chatter, to be celebrated for his songwriting and performance. But in this case, the man is so prolific, it seemed appropriate to go for the omnibus approach.

To be fair, though I had long planned to take on the collected coverage of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I came about this week’s feature backwards, through an incredibly beautiful cover of Hard Life, recently performed by rising star singer-songwriter Joe Pug and fellow indiefolk darling Strand of Oaks, in a set solicited and recorded by uberblogger Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends in a small, private chapel session near her Denver home. It wasn’t the first time I had truly listened to the words and melodies of the songwriter in question – after all, the man has appeared on several indie tributes and cover compilations, and his name is a constant companion in the world of music bloggers. But as with the best covers of any stripe, the sheer beauty of the cover sent me back to the stacks, on the path of rediscovery.

And that way, I found, lies genius.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – born Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, Palace Music, et. al. – is a performer as slippery as his pseudonymic existence, easily misunderstood as self-mocking when, for example, he appears with Zach Galifinakis in a Kanye West video, or professes his love for the infamous R&B artist and accused pedophile R. Kelly.

But in less than two decades of performance and recordings, he’s earned the credibility of his peers through an exceptionally prolific career marked by honest, earthy artistry, and a practically unparalleled devotion to authenticity in performance and song. As noted aptly in a 2009 New Yorker feature article, the result has been a true transfiguration of American music, one in which Bonnie “Prince” Billy… has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure.

Oldham’s work isn’t as accessible as some of his more melodic peers in the indie world. His voice is gruff and broken, his lyrics oft oblique; to steep in his work, whether in collaboration or solo, in full instrumentation or soft, fragile acoustic singer-songwriter folk mode, is to enter a world where emotion trumps precision, and beauty comes – if it comes at all – blackened and tarnished, as a sort of dirty, coarse reflection of the ages.

But filtering other voices through those strained, strangled pipes and a diverse set of twisted, faux-grandiose melodic tendencies wrings new emotional potency from songs which have often been overlooked, or at least not ever looked at so deeply as Oldham manages to – see, for example, his recent recreation of Sufjan Stevens’ All The Trees Of The Field as some sort of great old Crosby, Stills and Nash vehicle, the odd yet aching sadness he brings to Puff The Magic Dragon, the utterly transformative way he channels Steely Dan to take on Springsteen’s Thunder Road, his torn, sparse, broken duet on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves, or any of the seven utterly amazing covers on his 2007 EP Ask Forgiveness.

And, conversely, those who have taken on his songbook do so out of respect, and each, in its way, has managed to reveal both the age-old nobility and the sense of modernistic grandeur inherent in the songs, evoking diamonds out of the ether, still tarnished with all the char and soot of the originals.

Today, then, we present a twinned feature of sorts: side A a full-length set of performances and recordings by the man himself, interpreting the songbooks of those he respects; side B a smaller but no less majestic set, with covers of Oldham originals from the likes of Johnny Cash, Calexico, Mark Kozelek, Fanfarlo in rare form, and the inimitable Joe Pug. Hear ‘em and weep – and then head over to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s predictably inaccessible, oblique online home, to hear, purchase, pursue and explore.

Side A: Bonnie “Prince” Billy Covers:

Side B: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Covered in Folk:

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