“I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do when I’ve gone out to perform. I think of myself as a switch-hitter. I can go with the comedy stuff, but I can also get a little darker if need-be.”
Such has been Loudon Wainwright III’s maneuver through the music world for the past 50 years. In the underground kingdom of folk music, there are those that rule. Those that have remained on top of it all, having secured a fan base so loyal, they will follow you through thick and thin. And the key to any success is to know what works for you. That gentle blend of serious and satirical, comedy and drama, funny and sentimental is where Loudon has found himself situated in.
On the serious side, you’ll find an album like The Last Man on Earth, which he made after his mother’s passing and a breakup, which encompasses all of the feelings that come along with both. But when you look at his long catalog from over the years, you’ll also find songs such as “Dead Skunk”, his first breakout hit, and satirical songs like the most recent “I Had a Dream”, which envisioned the horror of a Trump presidency months before it happened (and might I add, it is sadly pretty accurate at times).
In Surviving Twin, Loudon’s first Netflix special which is directed by Christopher Guest and produced by Judd Apatow (who cast him on Undeclared 17 years ago) and Funny or Die, he finds himself integrating a whole new concept. Here, he takes his father, Loudon Wainwright II, a columnist for LIFE Magazine, and connects it to his own songs. Stories that very from buying a suit in London to losing your father at 17 to having to put your dog down. Essentially, this is the story of lineage, and how things in our life all find a way to be connected with one another.
We recently spoke with Loudon over the phone about his one-man show, the ongoing Wainwright lineage, being an analog guy in a digital world, his new album, and how he continues to use humor to this day.
THE BEGINNINGS OF SURVIVING TWIN
“The first time this show was ever performed, in its first incarnation, was 2013. What happened was, about a year before that, I happened upon a beautiful column my dad had written in 1971 about having to put our dog down. And this was in LIFE Magazine, as he was a columnist for the magazine. He had a column called The View From Here. Anyway I was staying in Maine in an old kind of cabin, and there was an old LIFE Magazine from 1971. I picked it up and read it and there was this column that I hadn’t read in years and years. I was very moved and it was funny and terribly sad. It was just beautifully written. And it kind of marked the beginning of the project. First I read all of his columns. There were over 200 that he wrote for the magazine. He wrote throughout the 1970s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Then I just started to pick my favorites, which included the dog column, Another Sort of Love Story. A lot of his other personal things. Columns about his own father, his trip to Maine, buying a suit in London in 1965. So what I did was I found stuff that I wanted and liked a lot. And then I connected it with some of my own songs. And that’s basically the format of it.”
“I’ve never done anything like this. Primarily I’ve been a singer-songwriter and I occasionally get acting work. But I’ve never done anything like this. I wanted to do something like this. To take my songs and frame them in a more theatrical setting. So the idea of having this sort of posthumous collaboration, my father died in 1988, with my dad was an exciting one and I’m glad we got to do it.”
THE EVOLUTION OF SURVIVING TWIN
“The first time I did it was at UNC in 2013. And in that original incarnation, the show was quite a bit different than it wound up being. There was another column in it about him going to see his mother in a nursing home. I decided to not have that in the piece. I did it in New York a few times with a director named Peter Askin. We changed it around and then I performed it in London and Pennsylvania near Philly. And I worked quite a bit with Daniel Stern, the actor who’s also a friend of mine. He liked the piece and helped me reshape it. That was a couple of years ago and then Christopher Guest saw it about a year and a half ago in L.A. and also liked it. And he’s the guy who directed the Netflix special. So it’s been through a lot of changes and incarnations. And I’ve worked with several talented people. But what you see now is what the show is.”
THE CATHARTIC ELEMENT
Yeah I think it is cathartic for me. It certainly is cathartic for me to perform it. I’m going to perform it again in March in New York. I loved doing it in L.A. when we filmed it back in May. It’s exciting because it’s a way to share my father’s work. I think he was a terrific writer. And then the idea that we’re doing something together, even though he died over 21 years ago. That’s a powerful emotional thing for me. So I love doing the show and I hope people like it.
AN ANALOG KIND OF GUY
Well I am a kind of analog kind of guy. I do shows and occasionally people show up with 8-tracks cassette tapes for me to sign. In terms of how does it hold up in the digital age of streaming and companies like Netflix, I think it holds up because the material is, I hesitate to use the word timeless, but it’s really about stuff that’s important no matter what’s going on. It’s about fathers and sons and parents and children, the death of a family pet, buying a suit in London, the end of ones life. This is stuff that is timeless. So I don’t think it matters really. I mean if it’s presented on a format like a streaming format, that’s great. But it’s stuff that we all know about and think about.
A STORY OF LINEAGE
“I just started with this idea of taking his work and connecting it to mine. And that was the beginning. But as I did it… I mean, I’m Loudon Wainwright the third. My dad was Loudon Wainwright Jr., although he wrote under the byline of Loudon Wainwright. But the first Loudon Wainwright was a guy that I never knew, my grandfather. And there’s a song about him in the show called Half Fist. And the show begins with my father talking about his father who died, it’s a little complicated, but my dad was 17 when his father died. So there you have the three Loudon’s, and then my son, Rufus, is also in the show. There’s a song called A Father and a Son which is about me and him, he’s mentioned in the show. So you have a kind of lineage of these male Wainwright guys. So that connects the past, with Loudon the first, with the future, with Rufus. And the beat goes on, because Rufus has a daughter, called Eva. So the lineage continues.”
“I’m not thinking consciously about it. I’m 72 now and I kind of feel like the same… I feel like I’m pretty much the same guy. At this point it’s not a question of reinventing myself as it is to continue working and try to find things to write about or present. I also have this double C.D. rarities collection called Years in the Making which came out in September. And then the book and the Netflix thing, Surviving Twin. In the meanwhile I’m sitting around my house out here trying to come up with the next song. So well I suppose I am reinventing in that I’m just trying to make new work or re-present old work. Again the beat goes on.”
THE USAGE OF HUMOR
“I mean I’ve always used humor in my shows. And I’ve always written novelty songs, I suppose most famously Dead Skunk. But I’ve always employed humor and comedy in the shows. And then tried to balance it with more serious stuff. We also try to do that in Surviving Twin. I mean, there’s some kind of serious moments, I mention the death of the dog, but there’s also some very funny things in that piece that my dad wrote. There are kind of comedic songs in the show, too. The show lasts about 80 minutes and you take the audience, the viewer, through a little journey where they’re laughing and then crying their eyes out at the next moment, hopefully.”
“This posthumous collaboration that I’ve done with my father, who’s been dead for more than 25 years, it’s very exciting for me. And I like the fact that it’s a wonderful idea that people might be watching this 100 years from now. It’s a thrill. I’ll be dead, but I like that idea anyway.”
Surviving Twin is streaming on Netflix now.