By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In the Moroccan-tiled patio of downtown Los Angeles' Hotel Figueroa, Will Oldham, having been drinking for a few hours at this point, relays a bizarre conversation he had the night before while cruising through the Hollywood Hills. It was foggy, he recalls, and the car's headlights accentuated the mist in front of them. Oldham, who records his lonesome electric folk music under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy, recalled that the conversation started with an abstract idea: "Imagine if men ejaculated not with a liquid, but with steam. Like, every time you came, it sprayed out instead of squirting."
They continued to roll through the hills, laughing at the notion, when a new idea occurred to them. The fog they penetrated was the collected spoo of Hollywood.
Oldham did his time in the Hollywood fog as a young man in the late 1980s. But he fled not long after arriving, so telling stories like this eases the distaste Oldham often feels about inserting himself into the record-industry promotion machine.
Now that the 38-year-old is a celebrated folk artist, he spends more time evading the media than he ever could have as an actor. Though he's far from a household name, in a certain segment of the music world Oldham's work is considered essential listening, a body of primal American song created on guitar and piano and delivered with honesty. Conversely, throughout his career he's wrestled with the personal difficulties of promoting new material, and has come mostly to hate the requisite interviews and especially the photo shoots. But he has a remarkable new album out, Beware, and he still has to pay bills.
Thankfully, Oldham is in a good mood. He flashes a cheesy, round smile that, coupled with his joyful eyes, has no doubt charmed many a stranger. That charm is likely what landed him the choice role of a teenage preacher in John Sayles' film Matewan. At 17, having never stepped foot in Hollywood, Oldham found himself working with actors Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and David Strathairn in a deadly serious story.
"Matewan was very, very inspirational, but very deceptive as well," says the singer. "I thought that it represented the professional actor's life, the professional crew's life, and it doesn't at all." After landing another role in "this TV movie about Baby Jessica, who fell down the well in Texas," and realizing that his first filmmaking experience had been an exception to the rule, he made a decision. "I can't be a professional actor," he recalls thinking, "because you can't count on being the exception." Oldham eventually returned to his native Kentucky and concentrated on songwriting.
Twenty years later, Oldham's "productions"—first as the Palace Brothers, then as Palace, then Palace Songs, then finally Bonnie "Prince" Billy—have accumulated to make a vast body of work. The world of Beware is typically dark, even if one of the album's best tracks, "You Don't Love Me," is a joyous romp about casual sex. There's always that head-scratcher in Oldham's arsenal, but as an oeuvre (which comprises at least 15 studio albums, just as many EPs, a few live albums and collections), all of which could be called American fiction, Oldham examines America as though he were striving to construct a modern-day version of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
And, after all, Whitman didn't need a publicist to make an impression.