Before he sired Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright III was best known as a prolific folk singer with a sense of humor (in 1972's "Motel Blues" he implored, "I'll write a song for you, I'll put it on my next LP/ Come up to my motel room, sleep with me"). He's also a part-time actor, memorably playing the kindly doctor in Knocked Up and Jay Baruchel's dad in Undeclared. His latest project is High, Wide and Handsome, a tribute to twenties banjo player Charlie Poole, released this summer, which features several members of the Wainwright clan. Vulture chatted with Loudon about his album and being an Apatow acolyte.
How do you explain who Charlie Poole was when you describe the project?
Well, he was such a remarkable musician, singer, banjo player, and performer — if you care about country music and bluegrass music, you know he was a pioneer. And one of the interesting things about him is that he was a pioneer that was overlooked. There were other entities like the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers who are much more well known and famous, but Poole for some strange reason was overlooked. We decided to get into that stuff and do a tribute record.
In the liner notes, you mention at one point wanting to do a Charlie Poole biopic. How close was that to happening?
It never really did. That was just an idea that a young man had, many years ago. It was a fantasy more than anything else. But I certainly remember having the fantasy. We kind of made the movie, but it’s sonic, something to listen to. So in a sense the fantasy came true, 40 years later.
You’ve been covered quite a few times yourself. Do you find that a good gauge for a quality of a song, if other musicians choose to cover it?
Yeah, I think any songwriter feels that’s kind of the ultimate validation, if somebody thinks that your song is good enough to record. That’s a real thrill. Particularly if it’s an artist who’s substantial. Johnny Cash recorded one of my songs. I felt pretty good that day!
Is this good karma, do you think? You do the Charlie Poole project, 150 years from now someone may do the Loudon Wainwright project?
I wasn’t thinking of that. I will be dead in 150 years, so it won’t really matter. I was just a fan, and my friend [producer] Dick Connette kind of made it happen. It was just a lot of fun to do it. I wasn’t laying any ground for my own posterity.
What’s your relationship with Judd Apatow like? We know he’s a fan of your music.
He would watch me in the afternoon when I appeared on TV variety shows like Merv Griffin, years ago. So he was just a kid in Long Island, and he liked what I did, the way that I write and perform my songs. So, it happened. I got a call [for Undeclared]. I hadn’t seen Freaks & Geeks, so I wasn’t really aware of who he was. Hadn’t seen The Larry Sanders Show, I didn’t have cable. Then I got sent a package with Freaks & Geeks, and it was clear that he was talented.
Did you base your character in Undeclared on anyone in particular? In real life, you’re far from the typical suburban dad.
I think [Judd] had his father in mind, and fathers are important parts of everybody’s lives. I just sort of tried to pretend to be that guy. That’s my idea of acting. Pretending.
Were you disappointed when the show was canceled?
I was disappointed. We were having a lot of fun. The show was a good show. It shouldn’t have been canceled. But Judd certainly has survived the cancellation of Undeclared.
Do you have anything else with Judd planned?
I’m waiting for the phone to ring! I’m all suited up and ready to go.