Loudon Wainwright III’s previous release was Recovery, a reworking of thirteen of his own songs, spanning the course of his lengthy, yet mostly under the radar, career. His latest release, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, has reached even further back than the 70s: to material popularized by Charlie Poole, a banjo player from the 1920s. Poole wasn’t a songwriter, but was an expert at taking others’ songs and making them his own. He lived what could only be considered a rockstar lifestyle these days, living hard and fast, selling nearly half a million copies of his first two recordings, and dying early at the age of 39, after a thirteen-week alcohol binge.
High Wide & Handsome is a 30-song walk through traditional Americana, containing songs popularized by Poole as well as newly-composed songs by Wainwright and company, written from Poole’s perspective (including the title track). I concur with Greil Marcus’ assessment in the notes to the album that there may not be anyone else on the folk music scene today who could do as much justice to this project as Wainwright has done. The humor, wordplay, and sarcastic asides that are scattered throughout the body of Poole’s work are practically hallmarks of Wainwright’s own songwriting. Stick a Charlie Poole song alongside a Loudon Wainwright song and you may not be able to tell the difference. Wainwright has done a fabulous job here of re-imagining old songs and completely owning them, while still paying obvious respect to the music’s roots and history.
People familiar with the various musicians who routinely show up on Wainwright-family projects will notice many familiar names in the notes here, including three of Wainwright’s children (Rufus, Martha, and Lucy), Chaim Tannenbaum, the Roches, and Wainwright’s sister Sloan. As always, it’s truly a family affair. Former Nickel Creek member Chris Thile also makes a few appearances. I don’t necessarily know that this is a great album to introduce people to Wainwright’s work. I think it’s more for people who are already familiar with his catalog, or who are fans of Americana. I wouldn’t have appreciated this album nearly as much a few years ago before I really started to explore folk/Americana/roots music. If you’ve got difficulties with banjos, this may not be the collection for you.
As an aside, this is one of the nicest packages I’ve seen in a long time for an album. The two-disc release also includes a booklet discussing the origins of the project, as well as providing a biography of Poole, lyrics to all of the tracks, and photos of Poole and his band. While I’m going to have to find somewhere on my bookshelf to put this, rather than a place on the CD shelf, I don’t mind all that much. It’s refreshing to see someone put a good deal of effort into the presentation of an album, given the trends towards digital releases these days.
High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project was released August 18 by 2nd Story Sound Records. The booklet, as well as videos and bonus MP3s, are available as free downloads on the release’s official website. Purchase High Wide & Handsome at Amazon or your other retailer of choice.