Album Review: Loudon Wainwright – High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project

When you’ve done it all, what’s left? Loudon Wainwright III has been pioneering country music since the 70’s working with and influencing generations of musicians, not to mention producing his own family of modern stalwarts for the genre. Recently his releases have been on the nostalgic side, with last years Recovery re-working tracks from his first four records. This time around, while he is still sticking to the past, he has done something quite intriguing: a tribute album that manages to reach much deeper than just a bunch of covers.

For High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, Wainwright assembled a cast of characters staying mostly close to home, bringing in his kids (Martha, Rufus, and Lucy) as well as mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. After two years of researching and recording, the result was more of an audio autobiography than a cover record. While some tracks are modern remakes of Poole’s work, most of the songs are Wainwright originals that tell the story of the man’s turbulent, hellish, yet remarkable life. Thirty tracks later, the Wainwright legacy, and country music, finally makes sense.

Loudon has made his career writing socially conscious, sometimes quirky, and often very telling, country that has stuck to the old school, well past the Garth Brooks destruction of it. Records like his 1970 debut, and 1985’s I’m Alright have added highlights to a career that has managed to put out a solid amount of music in each decade since he began (not to mention random cameos in 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up).

He, like many of his contemporaries who cut their teeth in the 60’s San Fran folk scene, give immediate credit to Bob Dylan’s work as a major light. It wasn’t until recently, that the deepest running influence had yet to be given full acknowledgment. This is what fueled the idea behind High Wide & Handsome back in 2007.

Charlie Poole has always been what all country musicians would call “mandatory listening”. Born in the late 1890’s, (no I’m not dyslexic, I’m talking old school) his career was short lived due to an untimely, but not so unexpected, death after a thirteen week drinking bender. He is the definition of what Wainwright calls a “rambler”, also pioneering the three fingered playing style for banjo. Hard drinking and hard living during pre-depression America: This is who Wainwright attempts to become on this record.

In just over an hour and a half he recreates Poole’s music pulling from more modern takes from just about everyone including Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. With his children in tow, old classics like “Beautiful” are reborn with Lucy’s soft but penetrating voice carrying the verses. Another, “Old and in the Way”, picks up a deeper meaning with Martha and Rufus joining their father on the prophetic lines, “Just remember while you are young, for you that day will come.”

Stories from Poole’s life, like a famous trip to New York City (“Way up in NYC”), are sung in true Wainwright fashion, simple in structure, yet rich in the story. “Old Ballyhoo” is a basic folk song that tells of how Poole got his start selling moonshine during the prohibition, using the money to eventually get his first banjo. It incorporates Wainwright’s crisp playing with a sweet violin to back his word play and story telling. The heartbreaking “Charlie’s Last Song” pays homage to a life spent at the wrong end of a bottle, saying a long over due bluegrass goodbye.

While the Wainwrights dominate the record, you can’t leave out Thile from the discussion. His mandolin is the perfect highlight throughout the record with the bluegrass instrumental “Ragtime Annie” as an obvious standout, paying homage to Poole’s days with the North Carolina Ramblers. Loudon knows his musicians well, and Thile was the perfect choice.

After all that listening, you can’t help but notice the tragedy that was Poole’s life, one that isn’t so far off from the lives of any of the worlds most revered musicians. Poole’s “Goodbye Booze” tells you bluntly about his struggles with addiction, but those struggles paled in comparison to the pain he felt inside him. His story reads like a legendary folk tale of traveling the country, from one drunken haze to the next, all while becoming the founder of a country style that was the mere result of an accident.

Wainwright’s telling of this country legacy is spot on. While his cuts are obviously modern, his choice in accompanying musicians allows the original feel of the music to stay true. It is country music the way it was, and for one family, the way it will be. As for tribute albums go, this one should have Poole pouring another round.

High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project


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