Loudon Wainwright III: “There’s Work to Be Done”

Folk legend and actor Loudon Wainwright finishes the Jazz for the Opera House on Hallowe’en night. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with him on family, acting, and getting bottled at Páirc Ui Chaoimh.

A musician, an actor, the great-great-grandson of a politician, and both progeny & progenitor of an immensely musical family, Loudon Wainwright III has done it all, from experiencing decades of life on tour, to the process and grind of the studio, and taken his place on the sets of television hits on both sides of the Atlantic. He also just hit 70 just last month, and to begin an early-morning phone call, is quite laid-back about it all, when asked about continued motivation and success later in life. “Well, aside from the fact that I still have to earn a living (chuckles), y’know, I like my job. I’d even go so far as to say I love my job. I love the part of it where I can get out and perform, jump up and down and sing the songs. I don’t care for the travelling and being away from home aspect anymore, and haven’t for a long time, but y’know, that’s an occupational hazard of touring. I like to perform and play songs for people, that’s the major incentive”.

Wainwright grew up amid a musical family as mentioned, and has quite successfully continued that tradition, not only handing it on to famous folk singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but tapping into the complexity of family relations for songs. What are his thoughts now on the relationship between music and family? “Well, as a kid, my father had a great record collection. A very wide range, from jazz, to folk, to Broadway musicals, to classical. So I received my initial musical education from listening to those records. Then, as a young man, it happened that I fell in love with another musician, Kate McGarrigle. So genetically, I’d say the deck was stacked. I have a second daughter – I’ve three, actually, my youngest is a college student – my other daughter Lucy, her mom was also a musician. So it just happens. The other thing is that family is a good song topic. The people in your family, your parents, your siblings, your children, your grandchildren… great song fodder. The people in your family, aside from the people you fall in love with, are the biggest characters, and sources of drama in your life, so it makes sense to write about them.”

In 1972 came novelty single Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road), which led to a memorable star turn in wartime comedy-drama M*A*S*H, as singing surgeon Captain Calvin Spalding. Wainwright explores his memories, or lack thereof, of the time and circumstance. “I was performing in a club in Los Angeles called the Troubadour, legendary music venue, still exists, actually. One of the creators of the show, Larry Galpard, saw me performing in the club, and thought it might be interesting to have a character in the show that burst into song from time to time, have a guitar and things. I was in three episodes, and somewhere in the world right now, there’s a M*A*S*H re-run happening on TV. Such a hugely popular show at the time, it was a lot of fun to do it. Everybody was really nice. It was a long time ago now (laughs), but I remember it just being a fun, exciting thing to be involved with.”

Wainwright is no stranger to either small or silver screen – a conversation with Opera House staff before the interview brought about memories of his role in cult-TV sequel Undeclared – and there’s no small part of his UK success attributable to his screentime in Carrott Confidential. Wainwright is quick to outline his feelings on the relationship between sound and screen. “I studied to be an actor, I thought that was the way I was going to go. I went to drama school in the late sixties, got a little bored of that, dropped out and became a hippie, and after that, drifted into music. But I always thought I was going to be an actor, so through the years, I’ve done things on TV and movies, y’know, a couple of small parts in movies. I’ve always enjoyed it, it’s a different kind of performing, more collaborative than sitting around dreaming up your own songs. I’m always happy to have an acting job.”

Like every folk singer that ever came across the slightest hint of success, Wainwright has been called “the new Dylan”, targeted to fill a void that won’t really exist until the man himself departs. The day before this interview, Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As self-effacing as Wainwright is about that time, he recognises the benefits that came from the piquing of industry people’s curiosity. “There were a number of ‘new Bob Dylans’. I actually have a song called “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan”. Some journalist wrote the term. I’m a big fan of Dylan and play a lot of the same chords, as him, but my writing is not similar or my style particularly similar. I’m a fan, but I don’t see myself as Dylanesque, y’know. It was useful, it helped me get a record deal (chuckles).”

Wainwright emerged from a hiatus in 2001 after the death of his mother with a deeply personal record, and has resumed full service ever since. What more does Wainwright see himself doing and accomplishing at this point in his body of work? “Well… I’ve gotta get in a car today and drive to Bristol for a show (laughs). In the short-run, it’s about making the next town, including Cork. There’s work to be done. But in the bigger picture, I have a theatrical piece I’ve been working on for the last few years called Surviving Twin. My dad was a journalist, he wrote for Time Magazine, and in this show, I take some of his writings and combine & connect them with my songs. I did it this summer, actually, at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. That for me is the most exciting thing on the horizon.”

On October 31st, Wainwright plays Cork’s Opera House. No stranger either to Ireland, the conversation turns to interesting stories he might have from his time here. “I’ve been going to Ireland for years and years, lots of fun and misadventures. In the stadium in Cork (Páirc Uí Chaoimh), about twenty-five years ago, I did an afternoon show there with Kris Kristofferson and the Wolfe Tones. The audience was comprised largely of drunk fifteen-year-olds, it was a free show, I hasten to add. The major beverage being consumed was cider. I was performing early in the afternoon, and was being booed and heckled, and someone threw a plastic litre bottle of cider at me, a full one. It hit my guitar! I left stage, and Kris Kristofferson came out and they did the same thing to him! Which goes to show they’re democratic in Cork. They behaved perfectly for the Wolfe Tones, of course.”

Though he’s led a long and distinguished career, that itch to perform and create hasn’t left him. He’ll be taking it easy for the rest of the year after this, mind you. “I go back to the States after my time in Ireland, I have four shows there. Not quite the endless tour that Dylan is on, but there’s work to be done. Then on to work on the Surviving Twin show.”

Loudon Wainwright III plays the Opera House on Hallowe’en night, Monday 31st. Tickets on sale now.

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