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10 December 2009

Will Oldham and the Community Function


Will Oldham compiled a list of his favorite music of 2009 for the current issue of Artforum. The best part was his introduction:

    “The editors of this publication asked me to compile a list. They asked that I not be too esoteric, and I will try…. However, as most people are coming to realize, we as individuals are finding greater connections to smaller things; things smaller in scope and more specific to our tangible and imagined communities. I find that the music that transports me often has a community of admirers bound together only by the love of that music. When I take a look at the dominant music news and discover that, essentially, Bruce Springsteen = Radiohead = Yeah Yeah Yeahs = Madonna = Arcade Fire = Bat for Lashes, it compels me to turn away from the lot.”

Actor, musician & my mustache style icon, you may know Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy aka Palace Music aka Palace Brothers aka Palace Songs, et. cetera. At the risk of overstatement, his songwriting, his flexible method of reinterpreting his own work, and the complicated system of ethics & belief which play out in his lyrics could have made him a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen for our age.

But he’s not that, and we live in a different kind of age.

Is he established? Yes. Johnny Cash covered his song “I See A Darkness” and earlier this year, Oldham subject himself to a profile in The New Yorker. (His reluctance at cooperating with said piece acts as co-star.)

Johnny Cash (featuring Will Oldham): “I See A Darkness”

Oldham, though, is a different sort of personality than the songwriters whose legacy he upholds. He conveys an intimacy, a solipsism, an independence, and a demand for purity that tests extremes never even available to the Cohen/Dylan lineage. In the 20th century, an artist had to engage in a careful dance with the mass media to make themselves known. By contrast, The New Yorker profile described Oldham’s funny relationship with even the niche focused “indie-rock industry” that sustains him:

    “These days, [the indie rock industry] is, to a large extent, a world sustained by bars (where the musicians circulate) and the Internet (where the music circulates), both of which Oldham dislikes. He’s always looking for ways to widen his circle: he’d love to get in the studio with R. Kelly, or spend a week watching Haggard work. And he resists the idea that, with his endless flow of obscurities and his maniacal fan base, he is one of the most blog-friendly musicians in the country. He asked, ‘At that show last night, what do you think, eighty per cent of the people read blogs? Fifty? Thirty? Ten? Ninety?’ There were certainly plenty of cameras, and, sure enough, on Monday morning the indie-rock Web site Pitchfork posted six photographs and a brief write-up.”

A bit more about the show mentioned in that excerpt. Oldham has always made music friends and family members connected to his Louisville, Kentucky home. His recent work with the local bluegrass group The Picket Line brings this tendency to the fore. Last year, they staged a number of impromptu concerts around Louisville, including this one:

Next week it’s being released as an LP on Drag City. (Until December 15th, they’re giving away an MP3 not otherwise available on the record.)

Does it rate with his best work? No, but Oldham’s such a prolific artist, it allows for creative acts that satisfy his ethics more than his audience. And when he indulges, it makes his commitment to “smaller things; things smaller in scope and more specific to our tangible and imagined communities” ring all the more true.

May we all continue to imagine our communities into being.

(Photo via My Old Kentucky Blog)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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