Enigmatic folk singer Bonny “Prince” Billy visits the Senator
As far as I know, Will Oldham has been to Chico only once, several years ago while hitchhiking through town. Local legend has it that the long-bearded indie-rock icon, who can look a lot like an underfed Sasquatch, appeared on the street and befriended a local coffeehouse employee (some of you may remember Rachel from Café Max) who was a fan and recognized him even under mountains of unwashed hair.
“Oh my God, he’s on my answering machine,” she was later heard to say.
Who knows? Perhaps this chance encounter with a lovely Chicoan left a lasting impression. It might even explain why now, years later, the artist has seen fit to squeeze Chico onto his current tour schedule that mainly crosses coastal California.
While some know him from previous incarnations as Palace Music and Palace Brothers, respected singer-songwriter Will Oldham travels nowadays as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, troubadour for the new millennium.
Known for writing emotional songs marked by his unique voice—a fragile sort-of warble frittering around haunted melodies in the American folk or country tradition—Oldham usually gets lumped into the indie-rock sub-genre because he (and his musician brothers) hail from the experimental Louisville punk scene of the ‘80s. And they have released records on the venerable indie-rock label Drag City, out of Chicago.
Critics label Oldham an “Appalachian post-punk solipsist” and compare him to Nick Cave (with whom he has performed), Loudon Wainwright III or a “black Beck” because of his artsy folk that many find melancholy, if not downright bleak. But in his current incarnation as Bonnie Billy, Oldham sounds like a load has lifted. The new songs off his latest album, the intoxicating Ease Down the Road, have a lighter, airy quality to them that feels like a departure from his previous, almost elegiac work. This is the material his band should be primarily drawing from for the upcoming Chico show.
Unfortunately, Billy was unavailable for interviews at press time. This fits Oldham’s reputation as a nomad, constantly touring around the world with the clothes on his back and his trusty coffee mug, which reads “Lord Increase My Knowledge” followed by the name of God, written in Arabic.
Will Oldham actually began his artistic career as a young actor, delivering a memorable performance as a teen preacher in director John Sayles’ classic 1987 film about an Appalachian mining community, Matewan. Since then, he has appeared in a few more independent features but preferred to focus on music.
At age 20, he dropped out of Brown University and bought a cheap guitar for his first recordings with thespian friends in Brooklyn (the unmemorable Box of Chocolates). He then returned to Kentucky and began playing with more pals, including brother Ned from the influential indie-rock band Slint, building a loose-knit group that eventually became the first Palace Brothers release in 1993.
This banjo- and steel-driven affair (There is No-One What Will Take Care of You) showed promise for the wispy-haired fledgling songwriter. Like folkster Michael Hurley (Holy Modal Rounders), he had a flair for mating dread and whimsy in his imaginative songwriting, and he soon found himself onstage at the legendary CBGB’s in New York.
Most of his themes since then have centered around love, lust and death with an odd spin on spiritual imagery in his dreamlike narratives (one song is about having intercourse with a mountain, for example).
“My folks were violent atheists,” he says in the press kit. “We sang weird distorted hymns in which religious references were mutated somehow into secular ones, custom cut by my mother.”
All of this is tempered by a do-it-yourself punk aesthetic and blunt honesty that have kept critics guessing as to Oldham’s sexuality (one of his prettier ballads is titled, “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick Is Hanging Out”). Add the ghostlike musical intimacy created by Oldham’s quiet singing and the spacey, unobtrusive acoustic accompaniment, and you get an artist who stands apart in the underground world of indie rock.
Oldham’s prolific output (17 releases with different groups since ‘93) is experimental with style and recording, making it hit-or-miss. Famed producer Steve Albini worked on several of Oldham’s solo records and characterized it in a Rolling Stone interview from May of 1996.
“He doesn’t rehearse. … He chooses the people he’s going to play with shortly before the session, so everyone is playing by the seat of their pants, and the music is at constant risk, subject to the weaknesses of whoever’s in the room. But he gets absolutely spontaneous moments of greatness you couldn’t rehearse.”
To his credit, without selling any records or receiving any airplay, Oldham has garnered fans worldwide (his shows sell out in Ireland and Australia) and inspired some impressive artists to cover his songs. These include Johnny Cash, whose wife, June Carter Cash, demanded he record Oldham’s “I See a Darkness” after hearing it on a mix tape; Brit rocker PJ Harvey, who wants to record an album of country duets with him; and the musically brilliant Icelandic pop star Björk, who covered him and admits a passion for his songs.
Publicist Mary Young informed me that for this tour “Billy will have five regular touring members of his full acoustic band: Sarah DeVincentis, Paul Oldham, Rob Kiewswetter, Pete Townsend and Aram Stith. As well, there will be some guests, friends and family, who will appear at different shows. There will be new songs, old songs, and covers played.”
Unfortunately, the Chico woman who once befriended Oldham has long since moved away. Sounds like another mysterious ghost song to me.