The Great Pretender
"Bonnie Prince Charlie" was the nickname of 18th-century Scottish nobleman Charles Edward Stuart, who died drunk in France after being exiled by William of Orange. Bonnie "Prince" Billy is the latest stage name of 21st-century singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who is neither Scottish, drunk, dead nor in exile, but will be bringing his seven-piece band to play two nights at Houston's Orange Show on Memorial Day Weekend. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Will Oldham started his performing career as part of the theatrical community in Louisville, Kentucky. His acting came to the attention of stubbornly independent filmmaker John Sayles, and in 1987 a youthful Oldham was cast in Sayles's film Matewan in the key role of Danny Radnor, a young man caught between his faith in the church and loyalty to his fellow coal miners. The movie takes place in 1920 and is rife with authentically traditional-sounding songs of the era, many written especially for the film by Sayles himself. Oldham did a little more medium-profile acting after that, but soon released his first album, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You, under the name the Palace Brothers. For those familiar with Matewan, the early Palace Brothers music seems somehow of a piece with the movie. Oldham's persona was tortured and quasi-religious, his music self-consciously harking back to simpler times.
He spent the next decade putting out a wide variety of raw, eclectic, highly personal records under several different names, many containing the word "Palace," and built up a sizable international following among discriminating music fans. In 2001, Oldham found one of his songs ("I See a Darkness") recorded by no less a legend than Johnny Cash. Last year, he took to a Nashville studio with a hired crew of pro session musicians to rerecord a slew of his rough-hewn earlier songs, imbuing the familiar material with a delicacy and range that only years of experience can provide. These sessions were recently released on Drag City Records as Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, to much critical consternation and some acclaim.
And now his line is busy. And it stays that way for some time.
"Did you try calling before?" asks the Bonnie "Prince" affably, once reached. "I knew someone was supposed to call for an interview, and I was sitting here for 20 minutes thinking, 'Okay, I guess this jackass doesn't know what he's doing.' But then I noticed my phone's been off the hook." He chuckles. "So I just want to apologize for that."
Notorious for being a prickly and/or elusive interview, Oldham comes across as soft-spoken and approachable enough. He insists that his only real problem with music journalists is their job itself.
"Personally, I don't want to read an article about Prince. I don't want to read a book about Prince. When it comes to Prince, or any recorded music, all I wanna do is turn the record player on, and that's it."
Interesting choice of example, considering that Minneapolis's favorite purple-hued, name-changing, reclusive musical eccentric's given name is contained in quotations within Oldham's own pseudonym. Another coincidence? I present The Artist Formerly Known As Palace with my long-held theory that if I See a Darkness was Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Black Album, then Ease Down the Road was his Lovesexy.
"Wait'll you hear my Sign O the Times," he cackles. "Seriously, people tend to assume that what I do is related to certain types of music, usually some obscure indie rock things or some sort of Lost Highway country-ish stuff, neither of which I listen to or care about at all. It's a little baffling."
One element of Oldham's music that's rarely mentioned by critics is the overt sexuality of many of his lyrics. In fact, at a 2003 acoustic concert I was shocked to notice that nearly every song had some blatant erotic overtone. From his plaintive "If I could fuck a mountain / Then I would " from "The Mountain Low" to "I lick you dry until you are laughing / my finger is in your behind" from "Rich Wife Full of Happiness," the Bonnie one might be, song for song, even more lascivious than that other Prince.
"Yeah, it's funny," says Oldham. "I guess maybe a lot of music journalists just don't have much sense of sexuality. Or humor. I mean, writers will talk all day about how something like the new Courtney Love album is oh-so-daring and sexual, just because she's wearing a bustier on the cover. Makes me wonder what they've got on underneath their clothes."
I take this opportunity to mention that I was surprised to run across a contribution to the latest issue of JANE magazine (May 2004, on newsstands now), wherein Oldham exposes a bit more of his own subsartorial proclivities than one might wish for, admitting in the Fashion Blender column that he "bought a girl's sweatsuit the pants are sort of bell-bottom, and they're tight in the crotch so they show off the package."
"Oh, that's great," Oldham is genuinely tickled. "I'm so glad they used that! I haven't seen that issue yet."
Okay, forgive me for being a little taken aback, but this is Bonnie "Prince" Billy, an artist generally portrayed as a sort of dour hermit, or heartbroken pseudo-traditional troubadour, or self-indulgent nutcase and he's coming off instead as some sort of jolly horndog, yukking it up with journalists, releasing shined-up, accessible versions of his most popular older songs, and talking about his crotch in glossy women's magazines. What gives?
I tell him of a quote I once read from an underground musician who said that he really didn't want to preach to the choir. That if his music was heard in a sort of "alternative" ghetto that it was without proper context. That he wanted to be heard buttressed up against the Top 40 music of the day, because that was what his music was being made in reaction to.
"I make music within a context, certainly," Oldham says and pauses. "But since I don't have any way of knowing what else everybody who hears me is listening to, I can only guess what that context is, finally. There was a song on Master and Everyone which I dedicated to Polly Harvey because it was a blatant rip-off of her whole style right down to the chord progression. So that's one version of context for me personally. As far as trying to get a wider or different audience with the Greatest Palace Music record, I'd honestly love to reach as many people as possible, but that's always been the case. And all the earlier albums are different enough from each other that I see no reason to expect that any one person would have liked any two records of mine anyway."
Bonnie Prince Charlie of Scotland was labeled "The Young Pretender" and after his exile he fought for most of his life to take back the throne that was rightfully his, only to be foiled again and again until he died in 1785, lonely and embittered. It appears that our Bonnie "Prince" Billy has set himself a much more enviable course than his namesake, but things still aren't perfect for Will Oldham. For one thing, this is plainly an artist who feels far more comfortable creating his art than promoting it. He remains friendly throughout our little chat, but it's obvious that the whole interview process is almost physically painful for him. On stage, Oldham is courtly and enthusiastic, accepting requests, pouring himself passionately into his singing and playing, burning with an intensity that regularly inspires members of his audience to tears. What he doesn't seem to understand is why that isn't enough.
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