Loudon Wainwright III at The Grey Eagle - Asheville, NC 3/23/17by Pat and George Betzhold on 04/26/17
"Dead Skunk" kills it at The Grey Eagle
Novelty songs have existed for a long time, probably going back to the first time humans put words to music. Those of us old enough to remember Sheb Wooley, The Chipmunks, Lonny Donegan, or Ray Stevens will probably recall “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” If you can’t remember who wrote it, well Loudon Wainwright III was the guy.
One could wonder why anyone would stick “III” on the end of his name. Loudon has a pretty good reason. His father was a famous staff writer for Life Magazine. His grandfather was a very successful businessman who got wealthy in the insurance business. Following these acts, he felt he needed to distinguish himself. Through the years he has emerged from that perceived shadow to become noted Grammy winning singer, song writer, actor, and humorist.
When we heard that he was playing the intimate Asheville venue Grey Eagle, the lure was irresistible. Who could say “no” to real carnitas street tacos, craft beer, and folk music? Certainly we couldn’t.
Loudon hit the stage with a “hello” and a three cord sound check. He then immediately set to work with a bit of banter and “Breakfast in Bed.” His wry humor continued with “I’d Rather be Lonely;” punctuated with a rather odd flicking of the tongue at points during the song. The song and the body language set the mood for the rest of the night – he was going to show his personality and irreverence for convention. After 50 years of success, he was not going to be held back. As he started to sing “The Picture,” the phone of a guest in the front row started ringing with one of those cutesy ringtones. Loudon said – “First of all, you’ve got to change that ring.” (Long pause as the audience applauded.) “Second of all, turn that ****ing thing off!”
After finishing “The Picture,” homage to his sister; he continued the family theme by remembering his father. He recited a column his father had written about Loudon’s grandfather. It was titled “Life With and Without Father.” The symmetry was perfect as he flowed directly into a song centered on his grandfather; “First Loudon.” He followed with “Nanny,” about his unconventional grandmother Eleanor Slone. It became obvious that his style has been molded by this eccentric ancestor.
Moving on from family, he introduced us to another influence, banjo player Charlie Poole. Loudon’s Grammy winning album “High Wide and Handsome” was a product of this. After a couple of songs from that album, he moved on to another hero, the recently departed Mose Allison. Mose’s “Ever Since the World Ended” and “Feel So Good” were followed by Loudon’s Mose inspired “So Damned Happy.”
He then did a part of a song called “Haven’t got the Blues Yet.” After forgetting the end of the song, and a few self-deprecating comments, he got back to the family theme.
It began with a recitation from his father’s vast archive of columns in Life. It was a touching ode of his father’s encounter with another future father in the maternity ward while awaiting the birth of his first child. That segued into “Baby in the House,” “Your Mother and I,” and “White Winos.” The last song is a description of his mother’s love and dedication to white wine.
A remembrance of Merle Haggard followed with “If We Make it Through December.”
Things got political after that. Harkening back to his North Carolina roots, he sang his humorous assessment of Jesse Helms’ opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts. “If Jesse Don’t Like It” was followed with his prophetic “I Had a Dream” in which his visualized the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency a year before it happened.
Things got lighter with “Moving Day,” “One Man Guy,” and a few others as he wound down the set. A final sharing of one of his father’s columns about the death of the family dog led into “Man and Dog.” There were a few shout outs from his fans asking to hear Dead Skunk. He just laughed and said he charges extra money for that one as he left the stage.
His encore lead-in was a recollection of his relationship with his lifelong friend and boarding school roommate who happened to be in the audience. “White kids of privilege singing calypso songs” was a comment on those days. “School Days,” a reflection of those days, finished the show.
As he left the stage, we began to assess what we had just experienced. The artist who we knew as a writer and singer of novelty songs turned out to be someone entirely different. We now see him as a poet, son, grandson, father, and friend who spent his life tying all of those things together in songs and actions. We left the Grey Eagle understanding that he is very much a kindred spirit, aging along with the rest of us and becoming as retrospective and many of us have become.