Will Oldham, best known as “Bonnie Prince Billy,” was in Lexington last month for a WMMT/Appalshop benefit at Cosmic Charlie’s. A few years ago, at Red Mile’s Round Barn, 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. Today, WW Norton releases a new book, Will Oldham on Bonnie Prince Billy, edited by Alan Licht.
Norton’s PR for the book says, “These conversations with longtime friend and associate Alan Licht probe his highly individualistic approach to music making and the music industry, one that cherishes intimacy, community, mystery, and spontaneity. Exploring Oldham’s travels and artistic influences while discussing his experiences with such disparate figures as Johnny Cash, Bjork, James Earl Jones, and R. Kelly, the book conveys the brilliance that has captivated fans and made Oldham one of our most influential and beloved songsmiths.”
They also quote Oldham as saying this book will serve as his “last interview.”
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.
He opened for Kris Kristofferson at Iroquois Amphitheatre not too far from his Highlands neighborhood home in August. 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 (ish) about Paul K., “A Wilderness of Mirrors.” Oldham performed the song Imperial Statues for the movie. (Paul K also releases new music today, and discussed his long friendship with Oldham last Friday on WRFL.)