Loudon Wainwright III: "If People Pay Me Extra Money [To Do "Dead Skunk"], I'll Play It."

At 65, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is, perhaps, the elder statesmen of musicians who were tagged as "The Next Bob Dylan" in the early 1970s. But Wainwright's cynicism and humor have always set his songs a part from the typical coffee house troubadour.

Sadly, in some ways, Wainwright is probably best known for "Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)," a surprise hit from 1972. But there's much more to Wainwright than a mere novelty song. 

Over the course of 21 albums, Wainwright has proven himself to be a skilled and insightful songwriter, one that is capable of inducing laughter and tears within the same tune. He's also an actor, having recently worked on both Knocked Up and the cult TV hit Undeclared.

Speaking from his home in New York City and in anticipation of his performance with Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Allen Event Center on Saturday, Wainwright spoke to DC9 about his fascinating career as both a singer and an actor.

You're known as a songwriter, a folk singer, a humorist and an actor. Is that the right order?
Well, I am happy to be working in any of those areas. Of course, I mostly earn my living as a musician. But, occasionally, I get acting jobs. I studied to be an actor when I was a college kid, so I have some training in that. Mostly, I earn money with my guitar, but every once in a while, I get to be in a movie or a television show.

I think the first time a mass audience heard your songs was when you were on [the television program] M*A*S*H. Are the songs you did on that show available somewhere?
I think all of those shows are on DVD. That was in 1975, the third season. I was in three episodes. People can watch it, I guess, if they go out and buy the DVD. My character was a doctor who played guitar and sang. I did not write the theme for M*A*S*H, which some people think I did. I wish I had, because I would be a millionaire.

You've also been on Saturday Night Live. Are you officially an American pop culture icon?
Let's say that I am! Why not?

When you first started as a singer-songwriter, you were tagged as another new Bob Dylan. How many of those have there been?
You got five or six of them. You got John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Forbert. Every once in a while, we get together here in New York. Actually, it's in New Jersey because Springsteen's got the biggest house. All of the "New Bob Dylans" sit around and cry in our beers.

Is it more difficult singing in front of an audience or acting in a film?
It is two different skills. Acting is a more collaborative pursuit. You're working with other actors and a director. It's kind of a family affair. When I go out there and perform, when I come to Dallas, I will just walk out there by myself with my guitar. It is apples and oranges, but it's all fruit.

You're opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter. That's a very interesting bill.
Yes, we have never done a show together, but we have met a couple of times. I am a fan of hers and, apparently, she is a fan of what I do. It should be fun.

You're probably best known for humorous songs like "Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)," but you also write some very beautiful and sad ballads. If you write something that is especially depressing, do you follow it up with a humorous song?
Not really. These things just start with an idea. I have funny songs about divorce and serious songs about divorce. There are funny aspects to things and unfunny aspects to things. I like to think of myself as a switch hitter. I can hit both ways. I can be funny and I can also be serious. Once you write a song, it just kind of takes over and becomes whatever it is.

How much have you been influenced by Richard Thompson?
I've known Richard for many years. I lived in London in the '80s, and he produced a couple of my albums. We have toured together. He's an amazing all-around fellow. Of course, he is an amazing guitar player. He's not a bad songwriter either.

Both you and Thompson have a morose sense of humor.
Yes, we cheer each other up with our depressing songs.

How did you end up working with Joe Henry on the soundtrack to the film Knocked Up?
Judd Apatow, who made the film, he grew up around New York. He was a fan of mine. I think he saw me on the David Letterman show. I had a small part in The 40 Year Old Virgin. He asked me to do the music for Knocked Up and I said I would be delighted. I had just met Joe Henry and the three of us, Judd and Joe and I, met and talked about it and Judd gave us the job.

That film probably exposed your music to a younger audience.
Yes, it's like a virus now.

Did your daughter Martha actually write a song about you called "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"?
You're not going to print that in a newspaper, are you? Well, y'know, I have some very talented kids that have written all kinds of songs. Martha did write that song and I originally thought it was about somebody else. People tell me that it might be about me. You'll have to ask her.

Your son and daughter, Rufus and Martha, are both great songwriters. Is there something special about the Wainwright genes?
Their mom is no longer with us. Kate McGarrigle passed away last year. Actually, it was almost two years ago. She was a songwriter and a great singer. The kids mostly grew up with her, so she takes the blame for all of that.

You've recorded for 17 record labels. How does that happen?
Well, they think that they might make a little money off of me and then they find out that is not going to happen, so they drop my ass. Somebody stupid comes along and picks me up again. I feel like Mickey Rooney who has had so many wives.

Are you working on a new album?
We have finished it actually. It's going to be called Older Than My Old Man Now. It's going to come out in the spring. It's all done.

You had a hit with "Dead Skunk." Is that something you have to play live since it's your best known song?
Usually, I don't play it. If people pay me extra money, I'll play it.

Perhaps, we can put a jar at the front of the stage and if it gets filled up, you will play that song.
That is a good idea. Can you get on that? I think that would be a great thing to do.

Loudon Wainwright III performs with Mary Chapin Carpenter on Saturday, October 22, at the Allen Event Center.

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