In 2001, Will Oldham was the first and only guest on an IFC pilot that never got picked up, Tripping with Caveh. The premise: indie filmmaker Caveh Zahedi takes some manner of mind-monkeying drug with a celebrity or person of interest; they trip. There's your show. This sole episode is a bit of a disaster. Oldham and Zahedi snarf chocolate-covered mushrooms with the idea that they'll cavort and capitulate around the grounds of director Richard Linklater's Austin estate, but Zahedi has a rotten trip. Oldham tries to hang out and comfort him, but mostly just wants to ride go-karts. At the end of the day/show, after he's fled from some bees in only his underwear, Oldham plays a few songs off his then new album Joya for an audience of Zahedi, who's barely holding it together, and Zahedi's girlfriend, who is clearly in love with Oldham.
But even if Zahedi hadn't sunk into the couch cushions of his own miserable introspection, I don't think the trip would have gone that well. Things get off on a bad foot when Zahedi gushes to Oldham how much his music means to him. "I love your music," he says. "So I love you." Oldham, who has released precious few albums under his own name, is having none of it. "I don't think that's right," he replies, after shaking his head and sighing. "I'm not the person people love when they love the music," he explains. "Not at all."
He just writes and plays some songs, he goes on, and if you get anything out of those songs, good for you--just don't drag him into the experience. Oldham points at some trees edging the field, and asks Zahedi if he'd praise the trees for being beautiful when all they're doing is just standing there. It's all downhill from there.
Oldham has never seemed totally comfortable being personally associated with his music, or personally associated with a listener's experience with his music. His releases throughout the 90s were attributed to some variation of the Palace moniker, and since the new millennium he's performed behind the hillbilly death's head mask of Bonnie "Prince" Billy--a combination of Bonnie Prince Charlie and William "Billy the Kid" Bonney. At the time, it might have seemed like Oldham was just partaking in some indie rock cheekiness--the same way those Pavement boys never properly identified themselves in their album credits--but as time went on, the fudged attribution matured into statement about the rift between person and performer. Ostensibly, Will Oldham was the guy writing the songs and Bonnie was the performer of them.
2004 saw the release of Sings Greatest Palace Music, a covers/tribute album by Bonnie to Palace. This followed what many consider to be three of the most important albums of Oldham's career, if not of contemporary American music: I See a Darkness, Ease Down the Road, and Master and Everyone. In their moody frailty, their delicate bawdiness--talking both writing and execution--that troika was a reasonable extension of the work Oldham had done as Palace. But Bonnie's 2004 interpretations of those classic Palace songs were robust and confident; well-played and well-produced; a complete 180 in terms of sensibility. An eccentric for sure, Oldham had left fans scratching their heads for a decade, but this Palace Greatest move left some fans, those for whom the sonic and performative aesthetic were seemingly as important as the songs themselves, scratching their heads until they were bald as Bonnie. Contrast and compare "New Partner," first from 1995's Viva Last Blues, then from Oldham's 2004 "sell out" album:
The question/condemnation that reigned among dissenters was, Why did these Palace songs need re-doing? Weren't they perfect to begin with? Was it Oldham, as Bonnie, declaring a split from his out-of-tune, broken-voiced days? Or was it just a sorta weird guy doing a sorta weird thing?
Though he's well-established as alt-country's weirdo half-uncle, and fairly well respected by critics, Oldham has never really fished in the mainstream. The closest he's ever come--other than appearing as a cop in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet epic, as a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D, and co-star, along with Zach Galifianakis, in Kanye West's alternate "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video--is when Johnny Cash covered "I See a Darkness" from that titular album.
Rick Rubin fostered a final hurrah for the venerable Cash by setting before him an American songbook that had both traditional, classic, and contemporary selections. Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails was a big deal, and he brought a weight to that song that completely recontextualized Trent Reznor's angst. His covering Will Oldham was not such a big deal. But while Cash's American Recordings project felt like it had jogged in from the outfield, it was simply a return to the type of album-making that reigned supreme when Cash was pink cheekedly starting out.
In music, the idea of the Artist is relatively new--capital-A Artist suggesting that a song is performed by the same person who wrote it, with the creation and execution being fundamentally braided. We may get a little ways blaming Bob Dylan--one of the more visible poet/players--for this, who authored a few songs on Cash's Orange Blossom Special. Of course, Dylan--née Robert Zimmerman--too, has long tugged at the leash between who he is and what he sings. Since the 60s, it's become increasingly important for us that that connection is firm. We think a little less of performers who don't write their own songs, hold in high regard those Beyoncés that do.
Pretty much gone are the days when everyone and their dad took a swing at "House of the Rising Sun" or "Unchained Melody" on their album. We can name the Animals, and The Righteous Brothers (though, for my money, Willie Nelson's "Unchained" is the best version out there), but trivia night would be dashed if most people had to come up with the writers of those hits.
All of this is to say that our ideas about what a song is have changed considerably since the Baby Boom. And more interestingly than any other artist right now, Will Oldham's relationship with his own catalog, and his relationship with Bonnie "Prince" Billy--who Oldham often speaks of as a separate person--bothers those notions. In its Nashville-ization,Sings Greatest, more than anything, exposed the strength of Oldham's writing. You could remove these songs from their initial context, and they'd stand up. They weren't shivering baby birds whose mother wouldn't go near them after they'd had another stink on them.
Since that first covers album, Bonnie's released about an album a year, some of which--especially 2009's Beware--maintain the slick robustness of Sings Greatest, some of which--like Wonder Show of the World or Wolfroy Goes to Town--maintain the quieter oddness of his earlier work.
2011's Wolfroy was one of Bonnie's most focused albums since 2003's Master and Everyone. Since Wolfroy, he's put four albums: Last year, Oldham executed a sort of guerrilla release, dropping off a self-titled independent album--Oldham's been stabled with Drag City and Domino Records for almost two decades--to stores by hand. The other three releases have been cover albums. 2012's What the Brother's Sang was all Everly Brothers, and the other two are reinterpritations of Oldham's own catalog.
2011's EP Now Here's My Plan scooped up some scattered Bonnie corkers from earlier in the decade, most notably a revivification of his seemingly untouchable "I See a Darkness." The result was a jaunty dirge, more a celebration than a lamentation now. More than Cash did, Bonnie infused that nearly fifteen year old Oldham chestnut with different meaning, different life, shoring up the adaptability of his songwriting.
With Now Here's My Plan, there was a few year's distance between iterations at least, a different temporal vista from which to view the work. But Bonnie's new album, Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues, takes another look at the three year old Wolfroy material. That dust has barely had a chance to settle before Bonnie kicks it all up again.
Wolfroy is maybe most remarkable for its sustained solemnity. In subject matter, it comes closet to the mournful The Letting Go; in sound, closest to Master and Everyone. The Wolfroy songs that appear on Singer's Grave are reperformed with a rich energy that hasn't really appeared beyond Bonnie live albums--more specifically, 2009's live collaboration with The Pickett Line, Funtown Comedown. That material didn't need to be returned to, but--as importantly--it could be returned to. Though the songs are ostensibly the same, Wolfroy and Singer's Grave are very different albums. Each equally worth our time.
Though it's a fact known to a small group of listeners, Will Oldham is maybe one of the most important, reliable songwriters of the past two decades. But so far only a few iterations of the Palace boys and Bonnie "Prince" Billy have tackled his songbook. Are you hearing Will Oldham bare his soul when Bonnie "Prince" Billy sings "Today was another day full of dread, but I never said I was afraid. Because dread and fear should not be confused: by dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused?" Maybe as much as you're hearing Hy Zaret bare his soul when he wrote "Lonely rivers flow to the sea, into the open arms of the sea" or Robert Hazard when he wrote, "When the working day is done, girls just wanna have fun." More often than not, meaning lives in the interpretation. A song is only as good as the performer bringing it to life. And, as great a songwriter as Will Oldham might be, it's Bonnie "Prince" Billy, in different moods and with different bands, who interprets and animates the material. Bonnie has become, as Oldham writes in "So Far and Here We Are" (or, if you're listening to Wolfroy, "New Whaling"), "a monarch who rules over all that he sings."
There's no easy answer to where the love really lies with music, whether it's in the text--authored, in the this case, by Will Oldham--or in the text's execution--here's Bonnie--or in how we interact with that relationship, how we make it our own. Whatever love's pinpoint in this triangle, Oldham-as-Bonnie-as-maybe-Oldham-again, more than any other artist-and-peformer, simplifies the locating of love by complicating the hell out of it.
PS For a sorta completely different take on Singer's Grave, do check out Vish Khanna's recent interview with Will Oldham.