Ask Loudon Wainwright III about his own personal favorites from among the dozens of albums he has released since 1970, and you can almost hear him cringe over the phone line. But, always the good sport, he’s willing to take a shot at answering it.
“My records are like my kids,” he said by phone recently from his home in New York. “So I don’t want to pick favorites. But (1992’s) ‘History’ was a special record. A lot of things really came together on that one. My father had just died a few years earlier, so a lot of songs on that album had to do with him. And I’d also say (2001’s) ‘Last Man on Earth,’ which was written after my mom died.
“I only have two parents, so…”
It figures that parental mortality would factor into the answer, because family has always been the Durham-born Wainwright’s greatest subject – whether writing songs about his parents, or his own children. It’s never been an entirely comfortable subject, since Wainwright’s father was also a writer and his kids are also noted performers in their own right.
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Sometimes the kids fire back at dad, too. Rufus Wainwright’s 2003 song “Dinner at Eight” recounts an ugly father-son confrontation that Rufus claimed really happened. And after Loudon enlisted daughter Martha as duet partner on 1995’s pointed “Father/Daughter Dialogue,” she later wrote a song about him with a four-word title, only the first two of which (“Bloody Mother”) are suitable for print.
Still, they keep things functional enough to sing together. The Wainwright clan regularly performs together, most recently on last month’s Americana-themed Cayamo Cruise.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the future,” Wainwright said. “We’re like a dysfunctional Von Trapp Family, so let’s put that out there. We get along great onstage, I’ll put it that way. It’s fun to sing together and I’ve done it with all my kids at shows and on records. I think the audience digs it.”
In a sense, Wainwright is also still collaborating with his late father, the journalist Loudon Wainwright Jr., who wrote “The View From Here” column for Life magazine for many years. The solo show Wainwright is bringing to Durham this weekend is based in part on his one-man stage show “Surviving Twin,” and it alternates songs with readings of his late father’s writings.
“Yes, it’s two Loudons for the price of one,” he said. “Working with him like this does feel pretty powerful. He and I had an OK relationship, at least toward the end. We had the usual combative thing, both being writers, almost competitive. But almost 30 years past his death, I’m doing this posthumous collaboration with my father and we’re getting along great. I still dream about him, too, both my parents. I think our parents stay with us because we’re part of ’em.”
As for what’s next, Wainwright is entering the book-publishing world with his autobiography, to be published this fall.
“I’m a little sheepish to admit it, but I’ve written a book,” Wainwright said. “Yeah, I took the money. I guess you’d say it’s a memoir and it took up a lot of the last two years, trying to write it and then fix it. I enjoyed the process. God only knows if anyone else will enjoy the result.”
He’s 70 years old now, but retirement isn’t in Wainwright’s plans at the moment (“By now, I can keel over at any moment,” he notes). Neither is “Dead Skunk,” the 1973 novelty hit that still stands as the one and only chart single of his half-century in show business. Don’t expect to hear that one live unless you bring your checkbook.
“I’m sure that song will be prominently mentioned in my soon-to-be-written obituary,” Wainwright said. “But I don’t do it that much. Almost never. I recently heard from a guy who claimed to be wealthy and offered a ridiculous amount of money for me to come play ‘Dead Skunk’ at a wedding. Naturally I said yes. But then he talked to his family, they objected and he withdrew the offer, which was annoying. So if people want to come up with some bucks, yeah, I’ll still do it.”
Who: Loudon Wainwright III
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham