The actor-cum-musician Will Oldham is a gifted, eccentric and fairly revered folk-rock singer-songwriter who, for twenty years, has made an art of working outside the mainstream. He releases recordings himself or through the small Drag City label, generally using a moniker — since 1999, he's been known mainly as Bonnie "Prince" Billy — and with a minimum of hoo-hah. As a live performer, he mostly dodges the club circuit, preferring record shops, brew-pubs, house concerts, low-key overseas residencies and the sort of D.I.Y gigs described in a 2009 New Yorker profile, along with the odd festival. He mostly avoids the press.
Lately, though, he's been dipping his toes into the mainstream — or carving it, you might say, as Oldham is an avid surfer. Last fall he published Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a book-length dialog with writer/fellow musician Alan Licht about his creative life. To promote it, Oldham's been engaging more with the media, which is ironic, since he claims he wrote the thing in part to avoid doing interviews. His performance regimen remains offbeat. But last Thursday night — in what felt, in its modest way, like a subcultural watershed moment — he made his debut at Lincoln Center.
Oldham's music, as rooted in early English and American folk as late-20th-century indie-rock, gets credit for inspiring a generation of woodsy pop-rock experimenters (he helped singing harpist Joanna Newsom get her record deal, to cite one kindred spirit). He records prolifically, and while a lot of his stuff is available on the web, he still sees songs as art objects. Last year, per usual, he released a handful of handsome, limited-edition 7" singles. There was also a fine cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Storms" and, as a companion piece to the book, an EP titled Now Here's My Plan, which featured new recordings of older tracks. It recalled Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Songs, a 2005 set on which Oldham remade some of the raw, beloved '90s recordings he made under his Palace monikers (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, etc.) That LP, produced in a comparatively slick '70s country style with top Nashville session players, was met with some confusion, as if it was a sort of prank. Now Here's My Plan might be viewed similarly. It features a version of "I See A Darkness" — probably Oldham's best-known song, thanks to a cover version by Johnny Cash — transformed from an aching dirge into a bouncy honky-tonk-styled number, complete with a giddy video.
There's obvious irreverence here, maybe a tweaking of fans who fancy Oldham a sort of sad-sack, Southern-gothic Nick Drake. But there's also palpable joy, a determination to wrest happiness from the existential coal mines, which stays true to the lyrics.
One might sense an irreverent spirit, too, in Oldham's recent product co-brandings — something that would have once been heresy for an indie act, let alone one of Oldham's severe standards. In the past few months there has been a Bonnie "Prince" Billy Hawaiian coffee blend, a limited-edition batch of Dogfish Head ale (which comes with an exclusive 7" single), even a Sanae fragrance blend.
And why not? Why should only megastars like Dr. Dre and Tim McGraw get to co-brand nice stuff? Like Oldham's own recordings, his co-brands are made by A-list artisans. And like his musical peers, the singer is working at a time when the old career models, especially for indie-rockers, are collapsing. New ones are required, and per usual, Oldham is writing his own script.
As he discusses in Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy, ideals of fraternity and community have always driven his work ethic. Oldham makes records with a rotating core of friends and family (his brothers Ned and Paul are also musicians). He's tried to steer his film career — which began at age 17 with a high-profile role as the teenage preacher in John Sayles' Matewan — in a similar way. After a long stretch of inactivity, it's been revived, notably through collaborations with director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). And he still works with Drag City, the tastemaking Chicago-based indie label who released his earliest Palace recordings two decades ago.
Oldham's latest project, due next week, is a set of duets with his pal Dawn McCarthy (Faun Fables), all covers of songs associated with the Everly Brothers. What The Brothers Sang isn't especially "indie"-sounding, unless you mean the indie-minded '70s music of country renegades like Kris Kristofferson, Cowboy Jack Clement, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. But it's a lovely, occasionally psychedelic, often breathtaking record. Oldham's voice has grown warmer and more precise over the years; he isn't afraid to sound pretty or to slip into reverb, and he's become a hell of a harmony singer, knowing just when to mirror and when to break off. The version of "So Sad" is as poignant as the Everlys's original. "Somebody Help Me" rocks like vintage Jefferson Airplane.
Performing mostly solo as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series last week, Oldham didn't play anything from the new record. But he did an impressive survey of his Bonnie "Prince" Billy material, going well past his scheduled 75 minutes. Dressed in a worn white T-shirt, black slacks, black shoes and blue nail polish, strumming an acoustic guitar, he periodically filled a mug from a bottle he'd smuggled onstage in a canvas carry bag. He played a couple songs from 1999's I See A Darkness (still my favorite BPB LP), including "Death To Everyone," transforming the murky dub reggae of the original into a folk hymn whose unblinking refrain — "Death to everyone / is gonna come / And it makes hosing / much more fun" — balanced the grim, the lusty and the absurd.
Live, that's something Oldham does frequently. He opened the set with an a cappella version of the English folk song "The Banks Of Red Roses," a riveting murder ballad, stopping it halfway through to digress on poetic metaphors and Patsy Cline's vaginal lips. He retooled the self-referential 1958 Bobby Blue Bland hit "Little Boy Blue," changing the "B-O-B-B-Y" verse to "B-O-N-N-Y" without undercutting its sexy blues potency.
These little Brechtian devices are emblematic of a guy whose career has involved both playing roles and breaking them. He's a film fanatic and obsessive music fan who is suspicious of how artists get identified with, and thus limited by, their work — so much so that he created the Bonnie "Prince" Billy character to try and escape that trap. And you've got to hand it to him, as he's maintained a remarkable professional flexibility: recording with Johnny Cash, touring with Bjork, appearing as police Sgt. Platoon in R. Kelly's Trapped In The Closet music video series (he's covered Kelly's songs, too, including "The World's Greatest") and with Zach Galifianakis in Kanye West's video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing."
For all the mystery his methods conjure, they've also helped demystify his craft. I'd recommend Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy to anyone wanting to make a life in music or acting without losing his or her soul. And his shows remain object-lessons in live-music intimacy. Singing in front of the glass wall of Lincoln Center's Allen Room the other night — a Biblically-bearded figure with a guitar reflected against the night sky while the lights of Columbus Circle traffic circled him like shooting stars in slo-mo — Oldham broke it down, playing a character with a job just like his:
I know you take pleasure in my singing
I know that only when I sing do you hear me
'Cause then I touch things I can't touch
I touch parts of you I really can't touch
Drunk with the joy of singing
I forget myself and call you my friend.