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Loudon Wainwright Looks 'High' For Inspiration

The latest project from singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is a double-album tribute to another musician entirely. Called High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, it's a celebration of the old-time country banjo player, who died in 1931.

"He was a very interesting banjo player," says Wainwright. "He kind of created a banjo style that led to [Earl] Scruggs picking and three-finger picking." When Wainwright first heard Poole, he says, he was taken with both his voice and the general "rambling man" persona that came across on his records.

Wainwright and producer Dick Connette dug into Charlie Poole's recordings — and into Kinney Rorrer's biography, Ramblin' Blues — eventually writing nine new songs about the life and times of a man they celebrate as a country music pioneer.

The project is not only a tribute to Poole, but a way for Wainwright to survey his own lengthy career in music.

"You do have a tendency to look back as time runs out," says the singer-songwriter, who turned 63 in September 2009. "And whether it's back to my old material or this very old material that predates me, I think that maybe that's a tendency as one advances toward the end."

Wainwright began his own career three decades after Poole's death, making a name for himself in the '60s with humorous and autobiographical songs. In 1972, on his Album III, he scored the Top 40 hit "Dead Skunk," and since then he's recorded 20 albums. He's even created somewhat of a musical dynasty: his children Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, from his marriage to folk singer Kate McGarrigle, are both popular singer-songwriters.

"I wasn't in a lot of rock 'n' roll bands" says Wainwright, reflecting on his earlier years in music. "I was in jug bands and things when I was in school. So that particular niche — I love that stuff. So it kind of makes sense that I would make this record, I suppose."

This interview was originally broadcast on Aug. 18, 2009.

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