“The song is at the forefront,” he says, “it’s the only thing I think about. And I guess songs can be very, very deep – not in terms of meaning – but in terms of experience. More so than painting and in more practical ways than a movie or a book even. The listener can enter into the song and totally leave their bodies for a while. You take a journey through the song and you get to see things that you dream about or that bother you. It can be geographical, sexual, violent – or merely entertaining. It’s the idea of the song as almost a living, breathing thing. Ideally it has a melody and a rhythm that is carrying you along the way.”
From Louisville Kentucky, Will Oldham first appeared in the role of a child preacher in the John Sayles movie Matewan. And as a teenager, deeply involved in the Walden Theatre Young Playwrights Project, it seemed that his future lay with that particular form of expression. But there were songs in his life too and, before long, he was exploring the extraordinary drama to be found in American music. Inspired by Appalachian folk, mainstream country, punk and heavy metal, Oldham began to twist his already twisted musings into songs which set him well apart other willfully disturbed songwriters. For Oldham it’s a matter of letting loose the character in the song – something he describes in terms of method acting.
“You can put on any variety of songs and remain the core singer because the singer is the raw material. Then you have a written song which everything else – the whole story. So each song takes on the weight of the character in the song more than the singer. That’s because the singer’s job is to recognize things in the song, and the song’s job is to translate that into an experience which is communicated with words and with music. That’s why I like this fellow Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He doesn’t have any problems with taking on that responsibility of associating the songs with himself. He has learned how to manage these responsibilities quite well.”
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is a relatively recent latest creation. For his debut single Ohio Boat Song Oldham was known as Palace Songs, when joined by his brother for the first album There is No-One To Take Care of You, it became Palace Brothers. After that it was plain Palace or Will Oldham - a confusion matched by the sheer volume of work – albums, Eps, singles and assorted collections. Lost Blues and Other Songs from 1997 for example was a three LP set – typical of what seems like a tendency to release as much as possible.
“I honestly think that it’s more vital that songs be recorded than performed. They have greater power as recorded material than they do in the live form. But people then like to see live music and having an interaction and a confrontation with an audience makes for a stronger song. People react to the song right there. Its like getting it out and breathing. I guess it’s the difference in being shut-in and someone who has a relationship to society.”
!999’s I See A Darkness was another sparse and grimly beautiful thing. It took Oldham a little beyond his already large cult following and new listeners began to make the effort required. It was also clear that while Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy wasn’t doing the songs any commercial favours, there was no reason why somebody else couldn’t come along do it. And so enter Johnny Cash who recorded Oldham’s title track for his own Solitary Man album, and invited the writer to join him on vocals. Such a benediction from Cash meant that people outside the lo-fi universe began to take note. It also meant that, via Johnny Cash, the song had entered the canon. The tradition had a new addition and Bonnie Billy was pleased.
“I think that’s very important. Its important that we have songs like Auld Lang Syne for example - it’s a touchstone for people. Or The Parting Glass or Johnny Be Goode. I know my two strongest musical experiences had to do with a David Allen Coe written by Steve Goodman called You Never Even Call Me By My Name. Once it was at a bar and once at a big country music club in Kentucky, and both times everybody just stopped what they were doing and started singing the song with each other. Also during the course of the evening there were bloody fights and people passing out, people breaking up and people making out. But that song was a time when everyone was unified. And that song is not that old.”
And for a singer as idiosyncratic as Oldham, the prospect of a song coming from the mouth of another is always a welcome prospect. Hearing The Man in Black sing I See A Darkness meant much more than just the obvious thrill of being covered by Cash. Specifically, for Oldham, it confirmed that the song had attained the existence he had always intended for it.
“I can only speak on a personal level but it’s like the song being as close as I can imagine to having a physical offspring. It’s a metaphor which isn’t overused and I think is a very practical metaphor. When someone else sings the song I imagine its like seeing your child graduate from high school or something like that. This thing has gotten this far. The whole point of writing the song was so that it could have its own existence outside of whatever my own strengths and failings are. And it feels good because you work hard to make a song that other people can see something in. When someone else is singing it, that is the ultimate realization of that potential.”
© John Kelly