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January 12, 2006

Still on the fringe, Wainwright reflects bright as ever

You are forgiven if the only thing you know about Loudon Wainwright III is that he had a big hit single in 1972 with “Dead Skunk.” You know the one — a countryish tune, consisting of banjo, fiddle, Wainwright’s warbled tenor and a chorus that goes Dead skunk in the middle of the road/stinkin’ to high heaven.

Wainwright never again made a serious dent in the charts.
But if “Dead Skunk” is all you remember of him, and you have him pegged as a novelty act, you’ve missed a lot. Wainwright remains one of pop music’s most fascinating and underrated performers. He will give a free show at Tuesday at the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, in part to launch the library’s “Words for Music” concert series (sorry, the show is already sold out).

Despite nearing 60, an age at which many of his contemporaries are on cruise control, Wainwright is making some of the best records of his consistently strong career. “I’ve been singing for a long time, and hopefully I’m starting to get it right,” he said in an interview last week.
No other contemporary musician more effectively bares his soul than Wainwright. Time and again he has willingly detailed his regrets, pains and shortcomings, and yes, the occasional joy, spilling it all out in gorgeous little soundscapes. It’s a rare songwriter who reflects on the guilt that comes with slapping his child in anger. Or tries to talk his lover into going to see a therapist with him. Or titles a song “I Can’t Stand Myself.”

“I find my cheesy, very normal life fascinating,” he explained. “And it’s what I know about. I haven’t figured any of it out, of course. But what I’m saying about myself is what other people are thinking about themselves.”

The goofy humor that marked “Dead Skunk” still lives, though usually in richer, more complex form. “My Biggest Fan,” a track from his 2005 release Here Come the Choppers, describes a real-life Wainwright devotee who, at 400+ pounds, is literally his largest fan. While the song does provoke a few laughs, it’s also surprisingly tender.
Wainwright was one of several singer-songwriters tagged the “new Dylan” early in his career. He addressed the label in a 1992 track called “Talking New Bob Dylan,” quipping that he was more like Dylan’s “dumb-ass kid brother” than the real thing.

Wainwright is also an actor, having portrayed Capt. Spalding, the singing surgeon, in several episodes of the TV show “M*A*S*H.” More recently, he played Orlando Bloom’s uncle in the film “Elizabethtown,” a priest in “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” and the occasional role on “Ally McBeal,” “According to Jim” and other TV series.

Wainwright’s Choppers includes two songs inspired by his time in Kentucky during the “Elizabethtown” shoot, most notably “God’s Country.”

And in case you’re wondering: Yes, Wainwright is the father of two other successful musicians, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. Sometimes they even get along well enough to sing together, but not always. After all, this is a guy who once asked the musical question, “What are families for?”

BY CARY B. WILLIS
leo@leoweekly.com