By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Loudon Wainwright III isn't bitter. Nominated for two
Grammy awards, he lost both times ('85 and '86) to the same
dead guy — the equally humorous and compassionate folkie
For his latest album, "Little Ship" — his 17th — Wainwright
worked with John Levanthal, who just won two Grammys with
his songwriting and production partner Shawn Colvin.
"He was very gracious and did not flaunt his trophies,"
Wainwright chuckled in an interview this week, "though I
suppose he's got one for each ear."
Wainwright is the oft-overlooked wry songwriter once
hailed, among many others, as the New Bob Dylan (also, the
Woody Allen of Folk or the Charlie Chaplin of Rock). He
couldn't quite live up to that title, though, because he's
got too great a sense of humor.
That same sense of humor also cursed him with his one
and only "hit" song, 1972's "Dead Skunk," which remains a
perennial favorite on Dr. Demento's radio shows and CDs.
"It was a novelty. People thought it was funny, and they
played it. It surely had more to do with payola than
anything," Wainwright said. "I'm being facetious, but not
entirely. If you recall, Clyde Davis was kicked out of
Columbia for the payola scandal not long after my song got
around. Thing is, we start this leg of the tour in Arkansas
where 'Dead Skunk' was No. 1 for six weeks. So surely it
wasn't all payola."
Today, radio support for Wainwright's confessional,
sometimes cheeky folk music is tough to find, though
Wainwright said a few major cities boast acoustic-oriented
"There's still college radio and NPR stations, and
there's this format called triple-A. That's the Automobile
Association of America, as far as I'm concerned.
Fortunately, I am a member, but it doesn't guarantee me
airplay. In fact, that's why I joined ..."
Wainwright, though, is one of those artists with a
devoted cult following. Since his eponymous debut in 1970,
he has crafted albums with laissez-faire care and
razor-sharp wit, frequently turning out deeply personal
songs with the ability to touch the heart and bust a gut --
sometimes within the same verse. His small but mighty
legions of followers have charted his course through minor
novelty hits to sorely underappreciated masterpieces
(1988's "Therapy") and his occasional acting whimsies, such
as his three appearances on "M*A*S*H" as Capt. Calvin
Spaulding, the singing surgeon.
Still, he keeps in mind the goal of branching out to
attract new audiences, and he said he hopes that his work
with Levanthal on "Little Ship" — one of his most fully
realized records — bolsters a few new fans.
"I've been only marginally successful in my career. It
actually helps me to be fairly flexible when recording,"
Wainwright said. "For instance, the song 'Mr. Ambivalent'
(on the new record). I went to John with a lot of songs --
things I'd thrown out, forgotten about, old stuff I hadn't
gotten to — and just played him stuff for days. 'Mr.
Ambivalent' was one I wouldn't have recorded, but John
liked it because it had a chorus and a hook and was fairly
catchy. I decided to try something different, you know.
Whether or not we fooled some new people, I don't know."
Teaming up with Levanthal came about as most musical
collaborations do: they were mutual friends of someone — in
this case, Colvin — and after several years of casual
suggestions that they should work together, finally
mustered the time and energy to do it.
"I've known Shawn for 15, maybe 20, years since she came
to New York City. They were living together in those days,
and I'd heard he was interested in working with me,"
Wainwright said. "His contribution to this record was
substantial. He has his stamp on the way it sounds, and
it's a way that I like very much. It was a different way of
working for me.
“John's got this little funky East Village pad with
foam rubber gaffer-taped to the door, and he records in
there hoping all the while that the people upstairs stop
stomping around and the buses don't go by. It's primitive,
I suppose, but it's relaxed. He works in his own way, too.
You record with him, and then he sends you away. You come
back in a few weeks and hear what he's done to your songs.
He's kind of a mad scientist kind of guy."
Wainwright continues touring this summer in support of
Loudon Wainwright III
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Old Fort River
Festival, Ft. Smith, Ark.
Where: Harry E. Kelley Park near
downtown. Admission: $5 at the gate, with children under 12
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: City Arts Center in Oklahoma City (at the
fairgrounds, gate 2-26 off of May Avenue). Tickets: $8 in
advance or $15 on Saturday. Call (405) 951-0000.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.