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Pilgrim's progress

From Palace to Bonnie Prince Billy to Will Oldham

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I am man enough to say that I have taken pilgrimages in my younger days—not for religious reasons but for musical ones. When a local scene becomes the focus of attention, young musicians and admirers flock to the happening area thinking that there’s magic water to drink, or that the air will induce revealing visions. I’d traveled to Athens, Ga. in 1987 (both because it was just off Hwy 75 and because R.E.M. lived there) only to find a very sleepy college town.

Then there was a trip to Louisville, Ky. Before I get into that, here’s your quick history lesson: Louisville produced a sleeper of a scene that influenced a major portion of today’s artists but doesn’t really get much credit. Let’s start with Squirrel Bait, a mid-’80s melodic hardcore band that made some minor waves, broke up after two releases and sent its best and brightest on to far more influential post-graduate projects. Check it out: Guitarist David Grubbs formed Bastro with John McEntire (Tortoise) and cross-pollinated with the avant scene by teaming with current Sonic Youth guitarist and collaborator-about-town Jim O’Rourke. Squirrel Bait’s other guitarist Brian McMahon, along with Britt Wolford, Ethan Buckler (King Kong) and David Pajo (Tortoise, Papa M, and also currently playing in, gulp, Billy Corgan’s Zwan) formed one of the most influential bands of all time: Slint, whose masterpiece Spiderland kick-started the whole stinkin’ math-rock thing (though personally, I think it was born and laid to rest with Slint).

So, on the strength of that roster, I wound up checking out Louisville twice, the second visit having the biggest impact. It was New Year’s Eve of ’94, and passing through on the way from Florida to Michigan with very little in the way of reference to go by, I spied one familiar spot from the previous trip. It was, of course, a record store. I stopped in to check out fliers for shows. The guy hanging up the fliers was named Kelly and, after asking the usual “y’all from out of town?” questions, he invited my traveling companion and me to a New Year’s party at his house. We took him up on the offer and spent the evening hanging out with all of the school-chums of the musicians mentioned above. A group of the nicest, most down to earth folks you could imagine.

I asked about Will Oldham. “Oh yeah,” a fellow partier said in so many words, “Will’s our buddy. He’s sometimes too shy to play his hometown, though.” Around this time Oldham’s band was called Palace Brothers, another quiet link in the Louisville chain. The story goes that Oldham’s label, Drag City, was reluctant to release his music until Royal Trux members Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema rallied for him. The result was the amazing debut, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, which set a standard for progressive traditional music and provided some much-needed respite from the whole grunge explosion.

But rather than take full advantage of this attention and ride along with the alt-country tic-ket, Oldham seemed to continually shed his old skin along with his old monikers. He changed the name of his band from Palace Brothers to simply Palace, then to Palace Music. After a few releases as plain ol’ Will Oldham, Bonnie “Prince” Billy is Oldham’s latest incarnation.

Releases from each of these projects—full-length, single, compilation—have been consistently impressive and satisfying. Oldham’s songwriting can simultaneously make you want to be alone, be with the one you love or be with a bottle, filling you with a longing that is familiar and intimate. Poetically and melodically, his style remains consistent, too: real mountain/folk music, truly personalized, though in a somewhat bent fashion—anyone who writes how he’d wish to fuck a mountain is not of a conventional songwriting ilk. Oldham conveys raw emotion in every aspect of his music, particularly in his delivery, which is too unpolished for some but precisely the reason to listen for others.

Oldham’s latest album, Master and Everyone, is incredible. Though each of his previous offerings has contained many great songs, there’s always that one that hits you right in the gut, making you feel the need to crawl into the bosom of comfort. This time it’s the opening track,“The Way.” Just thinking about that damn song makes my eyes well up. Without getting too sappy, Oldham does what most songwriters suck at: writing great love songs. And though vulnerability is often his strong suit, Oldham’s voice on Master and Everyone is stronger and more confident than on past releases.

I guess I’ve been listening to this guy’s music for about ten years now and still don’t know much about him. In interviews, Oldham seems intentionally elusive about his personal life, so it all just boils down to listening to his songs. To the public, he’s a person defined through his work and yet his work doesn’t necessarily define him. His admirers are international yet his ethic is down home, failing either to be eclipsed by fame or to represent something other than what he is. His performances are gatherings of the lover and the listener, the devout who wander through life looking for something deeper. And while not everyone needs a messiah, we could all use a friend. Welcome back, Pilgrim.

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