Loudon Wainwright III's album features several of Charlie Poole's songs from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Loudon Wainwright III's album features several of Charlie Poole's songs from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Paula Court
At the Grammy Awards in January, Loudon Wainwright III took home his first trophy — in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album. The prize came for a record celebrating the life of banjo player Charlie Poole, and in his acceptance speech, Wainwright thanked his late ex-wife, the folksinger Kate McGarrigle, who he said had "taught [him] to frail the banjo 40 years ago."
Wainwright and McGarrigle's two children, singers Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, lend their vocals to the Poole tribute album, High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. The record features classic Poole tunes, plus nine new songs written by Loudon Wainwright and producer Dick Connette. The two dug into Charlie Poole's old recordings — as well as Kinney Rorrer's biography, Rambling Blues — to celebrate the life and times of the country-music pioneer, who died in 1931.
"[Poole] was a very interesting banjo player," Wainwright says. "He kind of created a banjo style that led to [Earl] Scruggs' picking and three-finger picking."
When Wainwright first heard Poole, he says, he was taken with both his voice and the general "rambling man" persona that came across on his records.
Wainwright's own career didn't start until decades after Poole's death. In 1972, he scored the hit "Dead Skunk" and has recorded 20 albums since then. But it was his Poole album that struck Grammy voters.
"I wasn't in a lot of rock 'n' roll bands," Wainwright says, reflecting on his earlier years in music. "I was in jug bands and things when I was in school. So that particular niche — I love that stuff. So it kind of makes sense that I would make this record, I suppose."
This interview was first broadcast on Aug. 19, 2009.