At first glance, Charlie Poole and Loudon Wainwright III seem like unlikely kindred spirits. Spray native Poole was a key figure in the evolution of bluegrass in the 1920s, even though he never moved far beyond the working-class poverty he'd known as a mill worker. He died young, a victim of his own alcoholic exploits before the age of 40.
Meanwhile, the 64-year-old Wainwright's musical career has lasted longer than Poole's life. Born in Chapel Hill to relative affluence (son of the esteemed Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr.), he grew up never lacking creature comforts. Or as he put it in song once, "We were richer than most, I don't mean to boast, but I swam in the country club pool."
Nevertheless, Wainwright and Poole are peas in a pod: life-of-the-party song-and-dance men who laugh to keep from crying. And the proof is on "High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project" (2nd Story Sound Records), on which Wainwright covers some of Poole's signature tunes alongside originals inspired by the ramblin' man's life. Wainwright will perform all 30 songs from the two-disc album Friday night in Durham.
"Yeah, there are a lot of connections between he and I," Wainwright says over the phone from Shelter Island, N.Y. "I'm a big fan of what Charlie Poole did, of course. But I've also led a rambling life myself for the last 40 years, running around with a guitar to sing for people and having fun doing it. Sometimes a little too much fun, you know? Then there's his subject matter, novelty songs and serious songs and family songs. That's kind of my beat, too."
True enough. Poole was best-known as a swashbuckling raconteur, but he also recorded such dark ruminations as "Old and Only in the Way" and "The Letter That Never Came." As for Wainwright, he had his lone top-40 hit back in 1973 with "Dead Skunk," a silly trifle of a novelty song that bedevils him still. Yet Wainwright has since written volumes of lacerating, nakedly confessional songs steeped in relationship trauma that has spilled over from his exes (Suzzy Roche and the late Kate McGarrigle) to his singing offspring Rufus, Martha and Lucy Wainwright.
Started with friendship
"High Wide & Handsome" is a family affair, with numerous relatives and longtime associates turning up in support roles to give it a warm, amiable feel. Fittingly, the album grew out of a friendship - between Wainwright and Dick Connette, leader of the old-time Americana group Last Forever.
"I knew Poole's stuff only because of my interest in American folk and pop music," Connette says in a separate interview. "So I didn't connect to it as strongly as Loudon. But when I listened, I saw what Loudon related to and how it shaped what he became. So I called him up and said, 'I hear this. We should try recording some Poole stuff together.' We started bouncing things back and forth, as friends will do - almost like a long dinner conversation."
Some of the most striking songs on "High Wide & Handsome" are the ones where Wainwright and Connette put themselves into Poole's world. Connette wrote "The Man in the Moon" from the viewpoint of Poole's widow, then enlisted Maggie Roche, Suzzy's sister, to do a cameo vocal. She sings it in a heartbreaking tone of deadpan shellshock as she recounts her marriage to such a character:
It was hard bein' married to Charlie
It was no kind of regular life
He never stopped ramblin' or drinkin' or gamblin'
At least not while I was his wife ...
Then there's Wainwright's title track, an amusing piece of braggadocio based on a South Georgia expression he'd heard his mother use during his wonder years.
"When you read about Poole and imagine what he might have been, looking to his music and voice and reckless party-going nature, I couldn't help but imagine a lot of bravado," Wainwright says. "That emotion kind of governs that song: 'I'm gonna party ... even though it's probably going to kill me, but why not go out this way?' It would take that kind of attitude to be in showbiz and drink yourself to death at 39. You'd have to be arrogant and crazy, which by all accounts he was."
Never got his due
Poole was a prodigious boaster in songs like "I'm the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World." But he could use more people boasting on his behalf because he has never gotten his due from the country establishment - even though he was a key early architect of bluegrass, conjuring it from various strains of old-time folk and vaudeville.
Poole's 1925 recording of "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" sold more than 100,000 copies, a gigantic figure for that time. It also led to the discovery of Poole contemporaries including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. They're both in the Country Music Hall of Fame, thanks in part to Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and other luminaries championing their cause. But Poole isn't.
"Poole died so young and in the depths of the Depression, when the music was still going through its growing pains," says old-time historian and Poole biographer Kinney Rorrer (who wrote liner notes for "High Wide & Handsome"). "Bluegrass is basically just old-time string-band music in a more polished, sophisticated, mechanized way. Charlie was very influential and advanced in his style of playing, and he had a lot of gusto. For a guy who couldn't read a stop sign to go to New York, knock on a door and ask for an audition was a gutsy thing to do."
Playing in Eden
During pre-production, Wainwright and Connette took a trip to Poole's old hometown of Spray, which is now Eden. Rorrer took them to see Poole's grave and places where he'd played, lived and worked. It was nothing scientific, Wainwright says; they were just there "to get a vibe."
After playing at Duke, Wainwright and Connette will go back to Eden to play the Poole material on his home turf. It will be a celebratory occasion. Wainwright picked up some priceless recognition earlier this year when "High Wide & Handsome" earned him his first-ever Grammy Award (for best traditional folk album).
"It's been a good year for me and Charlie both," Wainwright says. "It's not any kind of mission, but we do want more people to know about him. He's kind of been lost in the shuffle. One of our hopes is that the success of 'High Wide & Handsome' will raise his profile. Charlie Poole should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. That's an injustice that he isn't."