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Loudon Wainwright III, the wry folk singer, refers to High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, as a “sonic bio-pic of sorts” of the legendary banjo picker, who died in 1931 at the age of 39. The cinematic terms come naturally to Wainwright, who’s been fascinated with the footlights ever since he played Captain Calvin Spaulding, the “Singing Surgeon,” on M*A*S*H. He’s written music for several movies and has had bit parts in a couple of Judd Apatow flicks and even (gulp) this summer’s rodent romper, G-Force.
Wainwright isn’t just biased, though—Poole’s short, wild ride would make for a compelling movie. Born in cotton mill country in North Carolina, Poole used his banjo to avoid the factory life as best he could. Poole’s aversion to domesticity, natural ability for music, and penchant for alcohol-fueled self-destruction would provide a tragic template for Hank Williams Sr. a couple of decades later and outlaw country stars ever since.
Poole, who viewed his music as just another way to skirt work and keep the good times rolling, probably wouldn’t know what to make of all the fuss that Wainwright has made over him. High Wide & Handsome is an ostentatious tribute to a man of such modest means. Comprised of original biographical songs about Poole and covers that Poole made his own, the project is as big as the singer’s boisterous personality.
While Poole never wrote a song, his versions of several traditional ones, either performed solo or with his group, the North Carolina Ramblers, became definitive—namely “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” “Take a Drink on Me,” and “If I Lose, I Don’t Care.” Wainwright, singing as Poole on “Took My Girl Out Walkin’,” jokingly complains, “I ain’t got nobody to make a big fuss over me.”
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Wainwright makes it clear on the opening title track that this is a festive wake for Poole, not a dour memorial service: “High wide and handsome carved on my head stone/With the date I was born plus the date that I died/Then take one from the other/All that’s left is a number/Just remember that I laughed as hard as I cried.” Although Wainwright calls on a host of friends and other musicians to help on most of the songs, the title track is strictly one man and his banjo, lest there be any doubt that Wainwright identifies strongly with his ill-starred subject.
Many of Wainwright’s songs in his own career were autobiographical—from the tender groupie hook-up of “Motel Blues” to the portrait of marriage in disrepair (he’s on marriage No. 3) in “Whatever Happened to Us.” Focused on Poole’s genius and shortcomings, Wainwright seems happy to be freed from writing about his own life. On “If I Lose,” a Poole staple about soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War, Wainwright sounds joyous and convincing when he sings, “If I lose, then let me lose/I don’t care how much I lose/If I lose a hundred dollars while I try to win a dime/For my baby she keeps money all the time.” On “Didn’t He Ramble,” Wainwright goes solo again and energetically narrates the tale of an itinerant, reckless ne’er-do-well.
Although Poole is the star here, Wainwright makes it clear that it’s still his show by including his family members—sister Sloan, son Rufus, and even daughter Martha, who once wrote a song about her dad titled “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” Suzzy Roche, Wainwright’s second wife and member of the Roches, appears, as does her sister Maggie, who sings lead on a song called “The Man in the Moon,” told from the perspective of Poole’s first wife. When Maggie Roche sings, “He never stopped ramblin’ or drinkin’ or gamblin’/At least not while I was his wife,” it’s hard to tell which rabble-rousin’ troubadour she’s singing about.
Booze was ultimately Poole’s undoing. He died after a 13-week bender, after all, but alcohol also provided a musical impetus. He bought his first proper banjo with money made tending corn liquor stills, and he and his fiddle partner, Posey Rorrer, often practiced while waiting for the moonshine to distill. On “Charlie’s Last Song,” Wainwright proclaims that “Old Charlie could drink you under the table” and sings, “Old Charlie would fight/Once he hit a policeman/They throwed him in jail ’cause that’s wrong/And when he broke out, the cops took him on home/And old Charlie, he played them a song.”
Though Poole’s exploits may have killed him, they sure as hell made for some funny stories, great songs, and an interesting life. His first wife once said of him: “Bet he never stayed over a month in any place in his life.” Poole was constantly in motion, but Wainwright does as good a job as any of pinning him down.