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Loudon Wainwright III
High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project

2nd Story Sound

Somewhere down the line the life lesson that you learn something new every day just comes up and makes its presence known. In my case, the name Charlie Poole is just that, a name that doesn’t immediately bring with it a vast amount of significance because I’m slowly accumulating knowledge of roots music with each passing 24 hours. Enter Loudon Wainwright III who, nearly 40 years ago, became fascinated by the early 20th century recording artist, influential banjo player, hitmaker, and touring musician, who also happened to be a textile worker, bootlegger, gambler and amateur baseball player. So, rather than devote himself to the next installment of the ongoing commentary of his world, Wainwright chose to fulfill a longstanding vision of an album devoted to Poole.

The two CD, 30-song set features songs performed by Poole plus eight new tracks, written by Wainwright and collaborator Dick Connette, that illuminate the musician’s life. With a succession of songs recorded between 1925 to 1930 as part of the North Carolina Ramblers, Poole pre-dated bluegrass giants and country legends. His banjo style offered a model for future players, while a number of his tunes were rediscovered by those who wanted to experience the old time string band sounds of a musical original. Poole’s version of “Old and Only in the Way” became the inspiration for a bunch of San Francisco Bay area pickers who dubbed themselves Old and in the Way, while the Grateful Dead’s “Deal” can find an ancestral connection with his “Don’t Let You Let Your Deal Go Down.” Jerry Garcia and David Grisman covered “Sweet Sunny South” and recently John Mellencamp used “White House Blues” as the template for “To Washington.”

Besides the musical riches, what makes Poole interesting is that he ascribed to a live-fast-die-young-and-leave-a-good-looking-corpse lifestyle or in deference to the title, he lived high, wide and handsome. Married but not much of the stay at home type, he was a hard drinker whose perpetual habit eventually led to his death at 39 years old.

Wainwright develops Poole’s story like an audio play. The genius part is two-fold. He uses a good portion of songs Poole recorded to help tell the tale, allowing his Project to become in his words, a “sonic bio-pic.” But, with the quality of each individual track, they have value without the concept. Although Poole did not write his material, he did a fine job of making them his own as well as reflecting his times — personal and cultural – through songs such as “Moving Day,” “Bill Mason’s Bride,” “Good Bye Booze” and “Ragtime Annie.” The instrumentation doesn’t rely strictly on the Ramblers’ banjo/fiddle/guitar format but it remains quite close to that ol’ time feel. This endeavor also becomes a family affair with Wainwright’s talented offspring — Martha, Rufus and Lucy — along with his sister, Sloan, and other notables such as the Roches (featuring Wainwright’s wife, Suzzy) and Chris Thile providing a strong foundation that’s musical and dramatic.

Consider High Wide and Handsome as a lesson learned.

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