ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Finally this hour, reclaiming the legacy of an old-time musician. In 1925, a record by the singer and banjo player Charlie Poole sold more than 100,000, an amazing figure for the time. But Poole has never fully received credit for his contribution to country music. He's never made it to the hall of fame, for example. The singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III hopes to draw more attention to Poole. He's put out a two-CD tribute called "High, Wide & Handsome."
And our music critic Robert Christgau tells us about it.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CHARLIE POOLE (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible)
ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Charlie Poole was a hard-living rounder who died at 39 in 1931, after a binge that lasted 13 weeks. Songs he made famous were kept alive by Bill Monroe, whose bluegrass innovations owed plenty to Poole's North Carolina Ramblers.
Harry Smith included him on his now legendary "Anthology of American Folk Music." He's been covered by such moderns as Jerry Garcia, The Chieftains and Tom T. Hall. Nevertheless, Poole remains obscure. Loudon Wainwright means to change that.
(Soundbite of song, "High, Wide & Handsome")
Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Musician): (Singing) How's high, wide and handsome carved on my headstone with the date I was born plus the date that I died, and take one from the other, all that's left of the number. Just remember I laughed twice as hard as I cried. High, wide and handsome, that's how I like living.
CHRISTGAU: "High, Wide & Handsome" was produced by Dick Connette, who, along with Wainwright, wrote or co-wrote nine of its 29 songs. This is fitting, in part, because Poole wasn't a songwriter. He was an irrepressible entertainer whose material ranged from crazy old folk songs to W.C. Handy blues to Tin Pan Alley parlor ballads.
Wainwright's version of the craziest folk song here, "I'm the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World," borrows verses from everywhere, but begins with the two that also kicked off Charlie Poole's original recording.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Oh, she's my Daisy, she's black-eyed, and she's crazy. The prettiest girl I thought I ever saw. Now her breath smells sweet, but I'd rather smell her feet for she's my freckled-face consumptive Sara Jane. He's the man who rode the mule around the world.
CHRISTGAU: The other reason "High Wide & Handsome" accommodates new songs so readily is that it's a kind of musical documentary. Most of the new material is about Poole, as well as in his manner. These include descriptions of his first recording session and his last spree. But my favorite is a song he couldn't have sung, a song Wainwright couldn't have sung either. It's from the point of view of Poole's wife and it's performed by one of Wainwright's many singing ex-sisters-in-law, Maggie Roche.
(Soundbite of song, "The Man in the Moon")
Ms. MAGGIE ROCHE (Musician): (Singing) Now and again out of nowhere, he'd come back with his hat in his hand. And I could never stay angry with that dear sweet impossible man. Sometimes he'd sing in the kitchen, sometimes we'd cuddle and spoon, but mostly I couldn't help feeling like I married the man in the moon. It was hard bein' married to Charlie.
CHRISTGAU: Loudon Wainwright, Dick Connette, their musicians and most of Wainwright's family celebrated "High Wide & Handsome" in a one-of-a-kind concert at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom.
It would be nice if this project became so renowned it generated more such events, but Wainwright told us he had a more modest goal: finally, a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame for a rambling man named Charlie Poole.
(Soundbite of song, "Didn't He Ramble")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Ramble. He rambled till the butcher cut him down.
SIEGEL: The tribute album from Loudon Wainwright is called "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.
(Soundbite of song, "Didn't He Ramble")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Oh, he rambled till the butcher cut him down.