Bonny Billy Goes to Town

It’s been a good month in Pittsburgh for fans of off-kilter, unsettling, lo-fi indie Americana. Thanks to the Warhol’s Sound Series, we’ve had a rare visit from Jeff Mangum, who brought his pretty-yet-soul-crushingly-sad sound to the Music Hall.  And this weekend, Louisville’s own Will Oldham will travel up the Ohio River (maybe) to give a concert at the Lecture Hall. It’s an intimate venue for a legendary singer-songwriter, and it’s sure to be a memorable show.

If you aren’t familiar with Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Bonny Billy, aka Palace, aka Palace Music, there are about a million places you can start. The guy is prolific – I’ve long since giving up trying to keep up with his EPs and collaborations.  The LPs, which come about once a year, are typically excellent, and the library has a number of them available for checkout. Just about any of those in the library catalog are worth a listen, particularly, IMHO, “Beware,” “Master and Everyone,” and the live “Summer in the Southeast.”

It’s those albums, and the dozen or so others that we don’t have in our collection, plus who knows how many EPs, that have solidified Oldham’s permanent spot on a lot of listener’s playlists, and for good reason. His music is a strange merger of traditional Appalachian music with very modern confessional lyrics, and he always manages to give his music an edge – through an unexpected “explicit” lyric, a brazen synth sound in a sleepy acoustic number, or just a generally sinister vibe that permeates his otherwise pretty songs — that keeps his albums interesting. There is truly nobody putting out records quite like Oldham’s.

But if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “geez, another sensitive singer-songwriter who makes quiet boring music?  No thanks!” (which might well be a direct quote from my wife), you might be interested in Oldham’s frequent departures from making these records. I think that anyone would have to admit that a person who covers Bjork, R Kelly, Merle Haggard, and the Misfits on the same record is someone who has diverse interests.

Consider the following five unusual moves for an indie-folk troubadour:

He did a cover album with post-rock legends Tortoise and re-recorded some of his early songs with a band of Nashville session musicians.

Are these “essential” albums? Probably not, but come on! A synth-heavy avant gard cover of Elton John’s Daniel? Check.  A glitzy Nashvegas rendition of “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow?” Sure!  These records are a lot of fun, and the library has both of them!

He made a video with Zack Galifianakas for Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing

This one really speaks for itself. He’s the one with facial hair (har har).

He tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

He was reportedly not bad, not great, but who knows but those who were there? And you have to give the guy credit for stretching himself artistically. He has also had comedic roles on Wonder Showzen and Squidbillies, an absurdist, gross-out cartoon that runs really late at night on cable.

He had roles in some critically acclaimed movies.

In fact, he was known as an actor (for his role in Matewan) before he put out records. He has recently starred in a couple of movies (Old Joy, The Guatemalan Handshake) and had smaller roles in a couple (Junebug, Wendy and Lucy).

He has a fragrance.

Why should J Lo fans get all the perfume glory? 

Intrigued yet?

-Dan, who will be missing the event because my toddler doesn’t care what time I go to bed, we’re still getting up at 5:30.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Bonny Billy Goes to Town

  1. Tara

    Great post! I’m embarassed to admit how many times I’ve watched that Kanye West/Zack Galifianakas video, and was very confused as to what Will Oldham was doing in it.

    • I think my jaw hit my chest when I read the title of this post. Someone else who knows of Will Oldham!? Kudos to you, he’s great. Have you ever heard the “Amalgamated Sons of Rest” album he did with Jason Molina of “Magnolia Electric Co”? If you haven’t, get it quickly and thank me later :)

      Anywho, great post, and good to know I’m not alone!

      Sincerely,
      Julien Haller

      • Thanks for the tip Julian, I have not listened to that but I’m a casual fan of Molina and am intrigued. I’ll have to look for it in my local shop, which diligently has place holders for all of Oldham’s monikers that refer you back to to the right section much in the same way a library catalog has “see also” references.

        -Dan

    • Thanks Tara! No need for embarrassment as far as I’m concerned, that video is a masterpiece! Lowrider tricks with a tractor! Clog dancers instead of bikini dancers!

      -Dan

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