Elusive indie-folker Will Oldham illuminates his work while preserving his mystique
By Hank Shteamer|
By Will Oldham, edited by Alan Licht. W.W. Norton, $17.
Like Bob Dylan, Will Oldham is as famous for his elusiveness as for his work, a string of often-dark, sometimes-raunchy, always-rewarding indie-folk dispatches stretching back two decades. This quasimemoir from the man known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a meandering yet enthralling book-length interview conducted by longtime friend and fellow musician Alan Licht. Happily, it shares an important trait with the magical 2004 Bob Dylan tome Chronicles: Volume One: It illuminates its subject while preserving his mystique.
One of the book’s key lessons is that this folksinger, whom many equate with the backwoods preacher he played in the 1987 John Sayles film Matewan, was actually a punk. His musical education came not from musty Americana LPs, but from catching Big Black and Hüsker Dü shows, and tagging along when his childhood buddies (future members of Slint) toured with Glenn Danzig. So it’s easy to share Oldham’s humble bewilderment when he dishes on subsequent encounters with Johnny Cash and R. Kelly, and collaborations with niche masters like Nashville pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins and veteran soul singer Candi Staton.
But Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s most valuable feature is the way Licht’s thoughtful, sympathetic line of inquiry helps to humanize Oldham, reframing his eccentricity—his ambivalence toward live performance, for example, and a cagey wariness of what he terms “the whole publicity machine”—as a practical safeguard, a way of maximizing his enjoyment of his work. (“The only reason I want to be onstage is because that usually means that I will be making money that I can use to make records and live life and work with people,” he says.) The book amounts to an eloquent treatise on the art of saying no, a guide to leading a public life while retaining privacy and dignity. If that makes Oldham “difficult,” it’s worth wondering who’d want to be easy.