You are forgiven if the only thing you know about Loudon Wainwright III is that he had a big hit single in 1972 with â€œDead Skunk.â€ You know the one â€” a countryish tune, consisting of banjo, fiddle, Wainwrightâ€™s warbled tenor and a chorus that goes Dead skunk in the middle of the road/stinkinâ€™ to high heaven.
Wainwright never again made a serious dent in the charts.
But if â€œDead Skunkâ€ is all you remember of him, and you have him pegged as a novelty act, youâ€™ve missed a lot. Wainwright remains one of pop musicâ€™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 libraryâ€™s â€œWords for Musicâ€ 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. â€œIâ€™ve been singing for a long time, and hopefully Iâ€™m starting to get it right,â€ 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. Itâ€™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 â€œI Canâ€™t Stand Myself.â€
â€œI find my cheesy, very normal life fascinating,â€ he explained. â€œAnd itâ€™s what I know about. I havenâ€™t figured any of it out, of course. But what Iâ€™m saying about myself is what other people are thinking about themselves.â€
The goofy humor that marked â€œDead Skunkâ€ still lives, though usually in richer, more complex form. â€œMy Biggest Fan,â€ 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, itâ€™s also surprisingly tender.
Wainwright was one of several singer-songwriters tagged the â€œnew Dylanâ€ early in his career. He addressed the label in a 1992 track called â€œTalking New Bob Dylan,â€ quipping that he was more like Dylanâ€™s â€œdumb-ass kid brotherâ€ than the real thing.
Wainwright is also an actor, having portrayed Capt. Spalding, the singing surgeon, in several episodes of the TV show â€œM*A*S*H.â€ More recently, he played Orlando Bloomâ€™s uncle in the film â€œElizabethtown,â€ a priest in â€œThe 40-Year Old Virgin,â€ and the occasional role on â€œAlly McBeal,â€ â€œAccording to Jimâ€ and other TV series.
Wainwrightâ€™s Choppers includes two songs inspired by his time in Kentucky during the â€œElizabethtownâ€ shoot, most notably â€œGodâ€™s Country.â€
And in case youâ€™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, â€œWhat are families for?â€
BY CARY B. WILLIS