BY KAKIE URCH
Two things very Kentucky Proud (though not edible) come together this Saturday at Cosmic Charlie’s as Will Oldham, best known as “Bonnie Prince Billy,” plays a benefit show for WMMT, the Whitesburg-based community radio station operated since 1985 by Appalshop.
Oldham, a Louisville native, has been recording either under the “Palace” name or under the “Bonnie Prince Billy” moniker since 1993. He is consistently listed in U.S. and European circles as one of the leading performers in alternative music. Let’s put it this way: In 2000, Johnny Cash did a cover of his song. (“I See A Darkness”) His sound is based on the American bluegrass and roots traditions that came up in Kentucky, the lyrics simple, wise and literate, the voice high, clear, plaintively joyous, true. After the Lexington gig, you won’t be able to see him for a while because he will be playing places like Zurich, Rome and Milan until he opens for Kris Kristofferson at Iroquois Amphitheatre not too far from his Highlands neighborhood home when he returns from Europe. Jeffrey Lewis’ song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” gives an insight into what an icon he has become, certainly without much trying behind it. In 2009, The New Yorker published a long piece called “The Pretender,” outlining how Oldham has transformed American music. In China, you say you’re from Kentucky and people ask if you know “Grandpa” (KFC’s Colonel Sanders). In England, you say you’re from Kentucky and people ask if you know Will Oldham.
But despite his worldwide success, Will Oldham remains a local dude, engaged with projects that matter and that resonate with the spirit of Appalachia. In 1987, he made his first push into the collective consciousness, brilliantly playing the boy preacher in John Sayles’ Matewan. More recently, he was part of the group of Louisvillians who put together and played on “Face a Frowning World: A Tribute to E.C. and Orna Ball,” contributing his version of “John the Baptist” to a CD release that honors the Virginia couple whose works are archetypes of American music. He also appears in the forthcoming documentary about Paul K., “A Wilderness of Mirrors.” And so on Saturday, Will Oldham, as he would, is doing a bar gig for WMMT.
For their part, WMMT and its parent Appalshop comprise a shining example, certainly one of the best in the nation, of grassroots, community-oriented and community-produced multimedia. Now a full-time broadcaster with scores of local people on the air, WMMT was local before local was cool. And continued success for this station, broadcasting at 88.7 FM and throughout the state via translators that further the signal depends on fundraising.
In 1985, Will Oldham was a theater-workshopping Louisville kid going to swimming holes (and on road gigs) with Slint as the sixth man, the third-wheel, the sure-I’m-old-enough-to-be-in-this-punk-rock-club-and-drink-this-canned-beer “roadie.” In 1985, the people of Appalshop, who had absolutely pioneered the concept of community media and documentary in the 1970s, turned on the switch for a “few hours a day” of community radio. Like that one gal said, “everything that rises must converge.”
Oldham’s most memorable recent Lexington show was produced by Ross Compton and Bullhorn in the Red Mile’s Round Barn, where Oldham and a band that included fiddler/singer Cheyenne Mize thrilled a local crowd that included Oldham’s mother for four hours, showing how unrestrained American music soars, flows, converges, returns, and comes home.
If the show at Cosmic Charlie’s is just half as Cosmic American Music as that Round Barn gig was, we’ll all be triply benefited, WMMT included.
Tickets for the show are $15. Documentaries produced by Appalshop will also be shown. Posters, designed by artist John Lackey, will be for sale.