By James Sonnier
CULPRITS: Will Oldham (pickin’ and a grinnin’); assumed brothers Ned (bass and voice) & Paul (bass and mixing) Oldham; more recently, a disparate collection of female vocalists, including Dawn McCarthy
ALBUMS: There is No One What Will Take Care of You (Palace Brothers 1993); Days in the Wake (Palace Brothers 1994); Viva Last Blues (Palace Music 1995); Arise Therefore (Palace Music 1996); Joya (Will Oldham 1997); I See a Darkness (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 1999); Ease Down the Road (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2001); Master and Everyone (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2003); Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2004); Superwolf (Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Matt Sweeney 2005); The Brave and the Bold (Tortoise & Bonnie “Prince” Billy (2006); The Letting Go (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2006); Lie Down in the Light (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2008); Beware (Bonnie “Prince” Billy 2009) // [Note: These are studio albums only]
HOW: The older brother of one of my best friends in college told us about this guy named Will Oldham, Palace, or maybe it was Palace Brothers; we weren’t sure. We bought Lost Blues and Other Songs, an odds and ends collection of Palace recordings, but which somehow proved to be the perfect introduction to Oldham for me at the time. We holed up in my friend’s dingy frat-house room and pressed play. The mix of musical dread and lightness was intoxicating; as if we’d stumbled onto Hymns from Below. The voice was, as the New Yorker piece perfectly noted, “wild and broken.” Guitars menaced and curled back on themselves in “Riding (Electric Version),” only to open expansively around sweetly soft melodies in “Little Blue Eyes.” And the lyrics hinted that it all might come undone at any minute. I was nursing my first break-up (known to all who experience such event as: the Most Profound Experience, Ever) and the pointed, relationship songs “End of Travelling” and “Come In” were panaceas that made everything wonderfully worse. By the time Oldham’s voice broke and cracked during “Horses,” I was in full on man-crush mode.
WHY: It’s understandable why a listener might find it difficult to break into the musical world of Will Oldham. For starters, he has released over 100 recordings in the form of albums, EPs, live albums, singles, covers or collaborations under various monikers such as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and his given name. Just when it seemed he had settled into the Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona, Oldham undermined this notion by slightly changing the spelling of this name. Oldham rarely gives interviews and was infamous for his shambolic early shows. The closest thing he has to a greatest hits collection is a re-recording of one of his pseudonym’s songs (the “Palace” bands) by another of his pseudonym’s (“Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy”). He has lovingly covered Tim McGraw and Mariah Carey and sung back-up on the recording for which he is probably best known, the Johnny Cash cover of Oldham’s “I See A Darkness” on Cash’s Solitary Man album. Sometimes it seems as if Oldham is trying to drive away the casual music listener or at the very least, wreck havoc on one’s iTunes organization.
This is a shame because Oldham crafts accessible, beautifully melodic folk songs and thrilling barn burners. They’re just hidden in the Kentucky beard of his discography. Therefore, this 80 Minutes For Life will focus on providing a direct entry point into the Oldham canon, while attempting to pull from many of the varied incarnations of Oldham throughout his career.
Oldham’s music fits within that sub-genre of indie rock called “Freak-folk,” curling up beside the hushed folk of Iron & Wine, while carrying on the carnival carousing of Tom Waits. He released his first album, There is No One What Will Take Care of You as Palace Brothers, beginning a string of releases under differing versions of the Palace name. Oldham’s reclusive nature and the early releases’ focus on God and sin produced an understandable desire to see Oldham as some innocent savant just come in from the Appalachian wild. But I think the better and more honest interpretation of Oldham, as explored in a recent New Yorker article, is Oldham as an Actor, a profession he pursued before and during his musical career. The confusing name changes are really costume changes, roles taken on and shed as they suit the performer. He seems to have found a modicum of stability in the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name, consistently recording under it since 1999’s I See A Darkness.
SONGS: In my attempt to provide the best introduction to Oldham’s music, I focused on his more accessible songs, while still highlighting Oldham’s unhinged side. I also tried to pick songs that are available for download on Itunes or Lala, but I felt I couldn’t leave off some harder to find gems, like the McGraw cover or various songs off Lost Blues and Other Songs. The playlist moves in chronological order, showing Oldham’s musical development and nomial wandering. It ends appropriately enough with last year’s “I am Goodbye.”
LINK: Click on the list below to hear the entire WILL OLDHAM playlist for free on Lala.com!
James Sonnier is an energy attorney in Houston, Texas, by day and something else by night, but he hasn’t figured that part out just yet. The patron saint of his family is Bruce Springsteen and he loves his grandmother’s biscuits.