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Troubled Troubador

Loudon Wainwright III is as sarcastic now as he ever was

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A big hit with "Dead Skunk"; a singer-songwriter; a baby boomer -- what's a middle-aged, folkie hipster like Loudon Wainwright III to do?"I'm focused on this (current) tour and promoting this new album, So Damn Happy," he says.

"I was born in Chapel Hill but after two years moved up North. My Dad was a student at UNC," Wainwright continues. "I love this part of the country. Is that what you want me to say? Actually, I have no feelings one way or the other."

As you can tell, wry, sardonic humor is a major facet of Loudon Wainwright's personality. Though he penned his well-known "Dead Skunk" ditty back in 1972 (claims it took 15 minutes), he's since released a good 20 full-length recordings. So he's not your average one-hit wonder. And though he might be better known as the father of Rufus Wainwright, or ex-husband of Kate McGarrigle, he's considerably deeper and more versatile than "Dead Skunk" implies.

Writer of other great and not-so greats, the "Swimming Song" and childbirth epic "Dilated to Meet You," he's been snagging a variety of acting roles, though he insists he's totally focused on this particular tour and CD. "That's my real job. I pour a lot into this. I'm fresh as a daisy." Pause. "Not really."

His overactive sense of humor plus his acting skills lend him a confident, humorous, off the cuff, engaging stage presence. In his second career, as an actor, he was a singing surgeon on the TV series M*A*S*H and had recurring roles in Ally McBeal (as Jerome, Claire's fiance) and Grounded for Life. In film, Wainwright scored a role as an alcoholic with Sandra Bullock in her not-well-received 28 Days. He'll also be appearing in Tim Burton's forthcoming flick titled Big Fish (due Christmas 2003).

In an earlier interview describing his role in 28 Days he explains, "I played a drunk in rehab, which was typecasting. I had to do a lot of drinking to get in training." Likewise in Fox's Undeclared as he portrayed a dysfunctional Dad named Hal, "A role I spent a lifetime preparing for."

This 20th album of his, titled So Damn Happy (Sanctuary), sums Wainwright up rather neatly. During our recent phone conversation, when asked if the title track was sarcastic or this time honest, he coyly answered, "Take it either way. It's your perception."

But a look at the lyrics to the song in question should clue you in that Wainwright III is still not real happy: "It's comic that it's all so tragic / Let's have a laugh after we cry / Vows of love are idle chatter / To feel this good has to be bad / I should be in a lot more pain / I should feel slightly crappy / But the sad thing is I'm so damn happy."

After so many decades as a performer, you wonder why a skilled artist would finally release a live album. Wainwright explained, "It was fun putting the machine on (during) a living show. There was my daughter [singer], Martha [Wainwright], [60s legend] Van Dyke Parks and Richard Thompson. I just like the music of those nights.

"There was another reason," he added. "It affords the listener another go-round on songs they might have missed the first time, for the interest of those that care to listen. Know what else? It's also cheaper."

Regarding his talented offspring, daughter Martha frequently sings at his appearances and his son Rufus is gaining listeners with his Elliot Smith-ish appeal. Though Loudon says, "My son can't carry a tune," he backs off and explains, "They all can sing and play and are perfect. They got it all from their mother. Mothers," he corrects. Look for another talented daughter, Sloan Wainwright, to open the Charlotte performance. Though there'll be plenty of barbs and zingers at his live show, don't expect any surprise musical guests, though anything is possible. Describing his upcoming appearance, "It's just me with my guitar."

Though not a blatantly political artist, he doesn't shy away from issues. He wrote numerous songs for National Public Radio (NPR) offering his usual wry and acerbic commentary, all collected on his Social Studies CD a few years back. Produced by Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, R.E.M.), and now repeated live on So Damn Happy is a song titled "Tonya's Twirls," which is about trailer-trashy ice skater Tonya Harding. The tune concludes: "Ice used to be a nice thing / When you laced up figure skates / Now it's a thing to win a medal on / For the United States / But once there were no lutzes, axles, pirouettes, or Twirls / Just giddy slipping sliding laughing happy little girls."

Wainwright claims he writes considerably on, "topical and in some cases political issues." He writes of the politics of aging, relationships and family dysfunction. According to Wainwright, "Social Studies was all political." He mentioned that "Something For Nothing" on the new CD explains, "Business and money is the bedrock of politics." While these are some of his more powerful songs, other listeners may prefer his painfully revealing, soul-baring, vein-opening songs, which at worst can be tedious or excruciating. The line between honesty and sappy sentiment can be a fine one. When Loudon spills his musical guts you might have to turn away. But give him credit for his non-commercial honesty and for going his own musical way.

Through the years, this troubled troubadour has written a couple hundred songs and has been nominated for two Grammy awards. He's been covered by Johnny Cash ("The Man Who Wouldn't Cry") and Earl Scruggs and from Freakwater to Big Star. Kate and Anna McGarrigle often covered his songs, as does son Rufus.

Three decades worth of music and song is a significant achievement. Some critics claim that unlike most performers Loudon gets better as he gets older. Paraphrasing the New York Times, "At his best he wrings more truth out of contradiction than any other songwriter of his generation." And that's why So Damn Happy is so damn typical of Loudon Wainwright III.

Loudon Wainwright III performs on Friday, September 12, at Neighborhood Theatre. Tickets cost $20. For more details, call the theater at 704-358-9298.

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