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Loudon proud

American singer-songwriter pleased to have his longevity honoured at folk festival

Wainwright will perform this year with his daughters Martha and Lucy.</p>

Wainwright will perform this year with his daughters Martha and Lucy.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/7/2016 (1295 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Not only is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III a veteran of the folk music scene, he’s becoming a veteran of the Winnipeg Folk Festival as well. 

This year will be his sixth trip to Birds Hill Provincial Park — he previously performed in 1983, 1988, 1990, 1995 and 2009 — and throughout those visits, it seems one specific memory stands out in his mind: mosquitoes.

"Well, I always think of that moment it seems where the mosquitoes come out... that’s always a harrowing moment," he says with a laugh. "I have memories of fleeing with a bunch of other folkies to escape the mosquitoes one summer."

Bugs aside, North Carolina-born, New York-based Wainwright is happy to return to folk fest to accept this year’s artistic achievement award, doled out annually to an artist who has performed at folk fest in the past, has "demonstrated musical excellence" and "contributed at an exceptional level to the field of folk music and to the community as a whole."

"I’ve written a lot of songs and I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I suppose longevity is something," he says. "I’m quite happy to receive the award; it sounds like a nice thing to get."

He will be joined by his daughters, singer-songwriters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, a prospect he deems "exciting," though he acknowledges the musical family (which also includes son, Rufus, who was in town in March to perform with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra) performs together often. 

"All of us, in one incarnation or another, have been onstage together, so being at the festival with Martha and Lucy should be fun," he says of his daughters, who come from performing stock — their mothers are the late Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle, and Suzzy Roche of American sister act the Roches, respectively. "We have material we can do together and separately, and it’s always a good chance to see them, too. Everybody’s always travelling in our family so we kind of bump into each other at airports and at folk festivals."

Wainwright, 69, has been on the folk music scene since the late ’60s, and has always been a bit of a dichotomous character, often writing about death, depression and aging, but infusing those topics with his brand of wit and humour. More than five decades and 23 studio albums later, he’s still going, continuing to hone his ability to simultaneously provoke both intense thought and intense laughter.

"Well as a young man starting out, like most young people, I had a romantic vision... somehow I imagined I would die before I was 30 or something like that, so it’s kind of great and a bit surprising that it’s been going on this long," he says when asked if he’d pictured his career going the way it has.

"As somebody wrote, ‘Who knows where the time goes?’ It’s gone by quickly, but it’s still fun. It’s still a job that I really enjoy and have enjoyed all this time, and I’m happy that I still have it."

YEP ROC RECORDS</p><p>Loudon Wainwright III has avoided the mosquitoes at the Folk Fest five times.</p>


Loudon Wainwright III has avoided the mosquitoes at the Folk Fest five times.

Wainwright didn’t (and still doesn’t) limit himself to music-making, though — he went to drama school in the ’60s and has earned roles in some well-known movies and television shows, including a three-episode stint on M*A*S*H and cameos in Judd Apatow’s films The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. If you’re a fan of Parks and Recreation, you may also recognize him as a "nutso community-forum attendee" named Barry from the pilot episode.

Like these examples, many of his acting credits are quirky little spots that highlight his weird and wonderful sense of humour.

"Occasionally I get an acting job, which is fun and a different kind of challenge and discipline," he says, noting he knew as a young child he was destined to be a performer. 

That penchant for the dramatic has certainly translated into his music, too, as he often dives head-first into the folk tradition of penning tunes that focus on political or other social commentary. His most recent album, 2014’s Haven’t Got the Blues Yet, featured the song I’ll Be Killing You (This Christmas), a smooth, jazzy tune with lyrics that contrast that melody by taking jabs at gun-control laws in America.

The song was written after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 children and six adults were shot and killed. I’ll Be Killing You was given a revived relevance only a few weeks ago when yet another mass shooting claimed the lives of 49 members of the LGBTTQ* community in Orlando, Fla.

"It’s such a terrible upsetting situation, and it’s a song that makes people uncomfortable to a degree — depending, of course, where I’m playing it," he says.

More recently, Wainwright used his topical songwriting skills to craft a tune about Donald Trump, inspired by friend and fellow songwriter Jill Sobule’s call for artists to start writing protest songs again.

Titled I Had a Dream, the lyrics illustrate Wainwright’s dreams (or nightmares, rather) of what the world would look like if Trump were to win the U.S. presidential election this fall. 

Wainwright also teamed up with Emmy Award-winning humour website Funny or Die to create a hilarious music video to accompany the song that features the folksinger sipping on Trumpweiser beer and getting a Trump wig forced onto his head. 

"The Donald Trump thing, he’s so ridiculous that you think, ‘I can’t write a song about that, it’s too obvious,’" Wainwright says with a laugh, adding that when he started playing it on the road and noticed people had a very strong reaction to it, he knew he was onto something.

"A lot of people watched (the video), but a lot of the comments were very negative; people didn’t like it. They said, ‘Why don’t you write a song about Killary (Hillary Clinton)?’ and things like that," he continues. "But I think that’s part of the idea of writing topical songs or social commentary — it’s to get under people’s skin and to ruffle feathers a bit and maybe get them to think a bit, or rethink, a few things. So I’m ready to take the criticism or heat for whatever I write in these songs.

"It’s always been a part of folk music. You know, ‘Three chords and the truth,’ as Harlan Howard says."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @NireRabel


Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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