Onward and Upward with the Arts

The Pretender

Will Oldham transfigures American music.

by January 5, 2009

Oldham has become an uncanny troubadour and, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure. Photograph by Steve Gullick.

Oldham has become an uncanny troubadour and, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure. Photograph by Steve Gullick.

“I’m trying to run a tight ship,” Will Oldham said when he came to the door. By which he meant “Don’t be late again.” It was a Friday afternoon in Louisville, Kentucky, and Oldham was in his working house, a cozy place that would be perfect for a small family, were it not for all the musical instruments and studio equipment. It’s tucked behind some trees on a dense residential street in the Highlands, an area known for its charming shops and rising property values. (He also has a sleeping house nearby, which is just about empty.) Oldham tends to hide his thoughts behind a faint, ambiguous smile, and hides his smile behind an unpruned beard, which can make him seem like a man out of time. This impression is underscored by his excellent posture—though that may merely be evidence of a childhood spent in the theatre, learning to be conscious of his body and how it moves. The front hall was full of CDs, books, and boxes of T-shirts, and Oldham was holding a small stack of light-blue envelopes, the same shade as the cover of his most recent album. On the front of one, he had written, “Mom . . . plus siblings.” There were concert tickets inside, and they had to be delivered soon, because the concert was twenty-four hours away. It was time to go.

He walked across the street to his car, a well-worn minivan. A bumper sticker said, “When you have overpowered an enemy, show him forgiveness out of gratitude for the ability to overpower him.” (The quote comes from Ali ibn Abu Talib, the central figure in Shia Islam; Oldham got hooked on Muslim bumper stickers after seeing some in a shop in Chicago.) Louisville is his home town: lots of people there know him, and lots more people know who he is. Oldham must be one of the country’s most celebrated singer-songwriters, and if it’s a relatively small number of people doing the celebrating—well, that just shows how hard they’ve been working. He hadn’t driven more than a few blocks before a man waved him over and asked if he had a spare ticket for the concert. He did.

Oldham has been releasing records for fifteen years, though almost never under his own name. His first recordings were credited to Palace Brothers, a name inspired by John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row”—in which the characters’ makeshift home is known as the Palace Flophouse—and by close-harmony duos such as the Louvin Brothers, who helped expand the scope of early country music, and the Everly Brothers, whose hits from half a century ago underscored the link between country music and early rock and roll. Oldham was a student of music history, clearly, but he never sounded studious. He had an eerie, strangulated voice, half wild and half broken. And he sang vivid and peculiar songs, which sometimes sounded like old standards rewritten as fever dreams or, occasionally, as inscrutable dirty jokes.

These days, he calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and his music is a little bit easier to love and a lot harder to dismiss. He has settled into character as an uncanny troubadour, singing a sort of transfigured country music, and he has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure. Johnny Cash covered him, Björk has championed him (she invited him to appear on the soundtrack of “Drawing Restraint 9”), and Madonna, he suspects, has quoted him (her song “Let It Will Be” seems to borrow from his “O Let It Be,” though he says, “I’m fully prepared to accept that it’s a coincidence”). One tribute came from the indie folksinger Jeffrey Lewis, whose song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” affectionately portrays Oldham as both a hero and a brute; the joke is that most indie-rock listeners already think of him that way. And a recent, unenthusiastic review in the London Independent nonetheless concluded that Oldham was “the underground artist most likely to work his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Although he has never signed with a major label, and has never risen higher than No. 194 on Billboard’s album chart, his concerts sell out all over the world. If he remains a spectral figure, that is no coincidence. In an online tour diary from a few years ago, he wrote, “It is more rewarding to be complicit with scarcity than excess.”

He is known, too, as a recluse and an enigma—two words that journalists often use to describe people who don’t particularly enjoy talking to journalists. He is cagey in interviews; he hates photo shoots. But he rarely goes more than a few months without some kind of record release. And in the past few years he has swum closer to the surface. He has rerecorded some of his best-loved songs with deft Nashville professionals, prettifying—or, if you like, desecrating—his own beloved back catalogue of obscurities. He has starred in a Kanye West video, alongside the comedian Zach Galifianakis. He appeared in the independent films “Junebug,” “Old Joy,” and “Wendy and Lucy,” the new Michelle Williams film (he also wrote a melody for her to hum in it). And he played a police officer in “Trapped in the Closet,” the multipart comic opera by the R. & B. singer R. Kelly, who is one of Oldham’s favorites. It’s a small part, but he looks as if he’s having fun.

Oldham’s mother, Joanne, was still living in the home where he grew up, a two-story house on a hill at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac. After delivering most of his envelopes, he went to see her, stopping at a liquor store on the way to buy some tonic water. Joanne is a soft-spoken but lively woman who seems nearly unshockable. She is an artist; she drew the image on the cover of her son’s most recent album, “Lie Down in the Light”—the one with the light-blue cover. (Her assignment: re-create “The Wrestlers,” by Gustave Courbet, but turn it into an image of Jacob wrestling the angel.) In the spirit of hospitality, she offered a warning: she said that her son wasn’t always easy to interview. The word she used was “ornery.”

“The Pretender” continues
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