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Old Songs, New Meanings

Folk stalwart Loudon Wainwright makes his Memphis debut.

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In his 40-odd-year career, Loudon Wainwright III has never played Memphis. Or at least he doesn't think he has.

"I've played in Knoxville and Nashville and a lot of other places in Tennessee, but I don't think I've ever done a gig in Memphis," says the 65-year-old folk singer and actor. "If I did, I have no recollection of it."

Not that certain people haven't been trying to get him to town for decades now — namely, local singer-songwriter Keith Sykes.

"We met at Young Turks in New York in the early '70s, and he's been trying to get me to come down there," Wainwright says. "And now I'm finally coming. I hope he shows up, and I hope he's not too pissed at me."

Memphis does play a significant role in Wainwright's musical education — or, at least, Memphis' favorite son does.

"The first single that I ever bought, a 45 for a dollar I guess it was, was 'All Shook Up.' And he knocked my socks off, like he did everybody else, when I saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show," Wainwright remembers. Watching Elvis made the young Loudon want to perform, but Wainwright insists, "I don't have an obsession with Elvis. I'm not going to Graceland while I'm in town, although maybe I shouldn't admit that."

"All Shook Up" may have instigated Wainwright's first forays into writing and performing his own material, but his career has diverged significantly from rock-and-roll. Wainwright plays a brand of thoughtfully wry folk music that doesn't overlap much with any area of Elvis' catalog, except in one crucial area: humor.

Presley often clowned around onstage, changing up the lyrics to slyly undercut the seriousness of a rock-and-roll performance. Similarly, Wainwright — with his twitchy stage presence and smart-aleck grin — seems to smirk at the whole notion of the performer onstage. 40 Odd Years, Wainwright's career-spanning box set from 2010, reveals a performer who expertly balances levity and gravity.

The trick to a good show and a long career is finding the right balance between those extremes, and Wainwright always knows when to crack a smile or a grim joke. On song after song, Wainwright bravely tackles unflattering subjects like sleeping with groupies and even hitting his children in anger, but he doesn't always approach these subjects with a straight face. One of his funniest compositions, "Unrequited to the Nth Degree," is about committing suicide as revenge on a woman who dumped you.

"I've always enjoyed making people laugh and being a clown," he explains. "If I want to get heavy, that's fine, but I can also let up a bit and get a little lighter. It's just moving things forward by shifting gears. It's a way to hold the audience's attention and surprise them. It seems to work for me, although I don't know if it would work for other performers."

That careful balance has allowed Wainwright to tackle very eloquently and very comically the one subject that all older musicians share: mortality.

His upcoming album, Older Than My Old Man Now, is about "the passing of time and death and decay," he says with a soft chuckle. "The trick was to write about that topic but make it bearable, not make it a complete bummer. There's certainly some serious stuff on the record, but hopefully there's a light touch, too."

Older Than My Old Man Now, which is scheduled for an April release on 2nd Story Records, is a duets album almost by necessity:

"If you have one voice singing about death song after song, it gets a little harrowing," Wainwright explains. "So we brought in some reinforcements for the heavy lifting."

Guests include Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Chris Smither, and Dame Edna Everage (the character played by cross-dressing Australian comedian Barry Humphries).

Wainwright also sings with his children, including Rufus, Alexandra, and Lucy Roche. In that regard, one song in particular stands out to Wainwright.

"'Over the Hill' is an old song I wrote back in '75 with my then-wife Kate McGarrigle," he says, noting that their daughter Martha joins him on the new version. "It's interesting now to record and sing that song because it was written when I was a young man. Now I couldn't be called that by any stretch of the imagination. Hopefully, it has a certain meaning or resonance now."

So many of Wainwright's old songs have aged gracefully precisely because he understands that they change as their composer and performer ages.

A song like "School Days," about his experiences in boarding school, or even a lighter number like "Swimming Song," which he wrote especially for his children, take on a patina of bittersweet reminiscence when they're sung by a man with most of his life behind him.

He points to "Motel Blues" (famously covered by Big Star) as a prime example: "If you're singing, 'Come up to my motel room and save my life,' when you're 25, it has a very different meaning when you're singing it and you're 65."

Perhaps that's why Wainwright has managed to remain active and interesting while so many of his contemporaries fade away: He's letting his songs grow as he grows into them, which only makes the lighter fare funnier and the heavier fare so much darker.

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