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Like father, like son: Loudon Wainwright III on his father's work and his children's music


Loudon Wainwright - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • Loudon Wainwright

I cried a bit before I interviewed Loudon Wainwright. Not because I was particularly overwhelmed to interview the folk singer-songwriter and actor. (Although I was excited.) And not because anything else was going on in my life at that moment. (Don't worry, Mom.) I cried because I revisited his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr.'s Life Magazine essay “Another Sort of Love Story,” about putting the family dog to sleep, while simultaneously listening to Loudon Wainwright III's song “Man and Dog” from his newest album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet). The combo of dog-related musings was too much for me – yes, a full two years after we had to put our beloved family dog Bailey down.

That pairing of essay and song is performed by LWIII during his one-man show Surviving Twin, which combines selected work of his father, a columnist for Life for more than 30 years and his own songs. Wainwright won't perform the entirety of Surviving Twin at his Bloomington show on Thursday, but bits and pieces will sneak in – perhaps even “Man and Dog.”

Now that I've wiped the tears away – I'm okay! I swear – here's a portion of my interview with Loudon Wainwright III, a.k.a. Captain Calvin Spalding, for the M.A.S.H. fans. Find more on

NUVO: Well, you and your father have ruined me. I just re-read his essay “Another Sort of Love Story” while listening to your song “Man and Dog.” You never get over a dog, do you? I know you're not performing Surviving Twin in Bloomington, but I would love to hear about the preparation for that show and how it all came together.

Loudon Wainwright: You know, my dad wrote these columns, his columns in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.I read some of them and some of them I didn't read. I was kind of a rebellious son, and everyone was always coming up and saying, “Oh, you're the son of Loudon Wainwright the writer,” and that annoyed me. So I kind of avoided a lot of them. But the few years ago, I was in Maine, staying in a kind o rustic cabin. There was an old-fashioned wooden magazine rack full of old magazines. And sure enough there was a copy of Life Magazine there. And I picked it up, and also sure enough, one of my dad's columns was in it. And it turns out it was “Another Sort of Love Story,” the dog column. I read it and burst into tears, basically. I had remembered that, but had forgotten just how great it was. Of course, I knew the actual dog myself, and the writer.

NUVO: I have to ask, are you the son he references [that wanted to put the dog down himself]?

Wainwright: I am not, actually, it's my brother Andrew. But people will often ask if I'm the son. But it was another son that was younger than me and was probably the primary master of the dog. But we all loved the dog. So that kind of struck me as an interesting idea. I got an idea that I would go back and read all the columns, which I did. I went to libraries, and got a few online, and there were old copies of some of them with the woman that my dad lived with the last years of his life. I gathered everything up and read it all, then conceived of this idea of combining and connecting the columns or parts of the columns with my own songs. And that's basically what I did. The first incarnation of Surviving Twin was in 2013 in North Carolina. Then I've done it since then a couple of times in New York, and I just did it last week in Los Angeles, and up in Albany, New York. When I come to Bloomington, I won't do the whole show because that's not the plan, but I'll do some of it, intermixed with my other songs.

Related: Read our 2008 interview with Loudon.

NUVO: What have you learned about your father through putting together this play and reading through all of his work? I have to imagine it inspired a certain sense of deja vu at times – maybe things that were kind of in the ether for you growing up that re-reading or reading for the first time crystallized. Anything surprising that you discovered in his work?

Wainwright: The main thing was just what a good, solid, clear writer he was. It was written, the stuff that I've chosen to put into the show, initially to be read on the page. But it can be performer, I found that out. It's funny and moving and observant and full of insight. It's just good stuff. Like a lot of young people, I had struggles with my father in particular, growing up. And he's been dead for over 25 years now. But we're getting along better than we ever did.

NUVO: In an upcoming acting project called We Only Know So Much, you're playing a father experiencing dementia. On your new album and albums previous, you're reflecting a lot on aging, and what that means in humorous and poignant ways. As you move through these releases and roles like in that film, how have your thoughts on aging changed?

Wainwright: Well, my feeling about aging are changing as I age! It's a reality. I'm 69, now. There's all kinds of – I won't go into boring and gruesome details, because I don't know how old you are – but you change. It's interesting and awful – not entirely awful. I think Bette Davis famously said, “It's not for sissies.” I'm not even that old, I suppose.

I've always written about the aging process and mortality and impending doom and death. It's always been a fascinating subject for me, even when I was younger. The first line in the first song on my first album, which I recoded in 1969 was, “In Delaware, when I was younger.” I've always been kind of thinking of myself as being old. Now it's really finally happened.

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NUVO: This question is from a songwriter who recently compiled a retrospective of his band's own work: 10 years and five albums. He's thinking through all of his band's albums and writing about them. He wanted to know, what album from each decade do you think you got the most right, front to back?

Wainwright: I've made 26 albums over a period of about, I don't know, 40-something years. Some of them, I think I nailed it, hit it right on the head. Others, not so much that. I hesitate to compare them or rate them. They're like my little children, my adorable children. I love all of my albums.

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NUVO: Speaking of your adorable children, I just read the news that Lucy and Martha are working on an album together.

Wainwright: Yes, I've heard it. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but I think it's great. It's really an interesting [album]. … It's lullabies, but with a darker tone to them. They've made a lovely record, lovely and a little scary, too. It's a good record. Martha and Lucy have kind of contrasting singing styles. Martha is sort of, how should I say, really out there as a vocalist, and jumps around and does a lot of crazy improvisational things. Lucy is a more kind-of tucked-in, simpler singer. I think that the way they match up their singing styles is terrific. I like the record a lot, and they've recorded two of my songs on it.

NUVO: When you look and listen to your kids music, what are you the most proud of?

Wainwright: The first feeling is relief, because I have four kids and three of them are professional singers, and they're good. That's the good news. They're all talented, and they have really distinctive styles. They're their own performers, although I suppose they certainly were influenced by their parents, Kate McGarrigle [Martha and Rufus' mom] and Suzzy Roche, Lucy's mom, both singers, and I'm a singer and performer. They are distinct in their abilities and talents, and that's a great thing. I'm proud of them.

NUVO: I recently rewatched all of Parks and Recreation, and I remembered that you were in episode one of that series [as a community meeting attendee]. You always seem to have a couple of acting projects in the works, and contributions to scores. You have a lot of comedy connections. What appeals to you about acting now?

Wainwright: What appeals to me about acting now is getting an acting job. I mean, as an actor, I work occasionally as you say, and I enjoy it. My original life plan, I had gone to drama school and I thought I was going to be an actor and kind of slipped into music. I'm always happy to do an acting job, so I don't plan this stuff out. Somebody calls and says, “Do you want to be in this?” or “Do you want to audition for that?” And my general reaction is, “Sure!” It's a fun and different kind of performing, as opposed to going up and doing my songs, or even doing Surviving Twin, which required a bit more acting than the regular show. I love to get an acting job every once in a while.

NUVO: You've got No Pay, Nudity coming out, too. Tell me about that.

Wainwright: That's a small independent film directed by a guy called Lee Wilkof, who is a wonderful actor himself. It stars Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane is in it, and some other terrific actors. No Pay, Nudity is a reference to the Actors Equity Lounge in New York. There's bulletin boards where desperate actors go and see if they can get a job.

NUVO: No pay and nudity is a bad combo.

Wainwright: Yeah, yeah. It was fun to work on that. I'm not sure when that will be released but I enjoyed doing it.

NUVO: Another reader wondered what your warmest memories from M.A.S.H. are.

Wainwright: It was a long time ago. I think it was '75, so that's 40 years. But everybody was very nice, and I enjoyed doing it. Of course at that time it was the biggest thing on television. It was exciting getting to do it. I enjoyed hanging out with Gary Burghoff, who played the character of Radar. He was a very interesting guy. Lots of fun, and it's probably showing somewhere as we speak.

NUVO: Probably in multiple places. One more reader question: Can you tell the story behind “The Swimming Song?"

Wainwright: It's a song that's again 40 years old, but it's still in my repertoire, and people seem to like it a lot. I wrote it on the five-string banjo, which I can kind of play. Some of the songs just start with an idea. I do like to swim. I went swimming this morning, in a pool in New York. It's been a kind of constant in my life. I love swimming, and so the first line is, “This summer I went swimming / This summer I might have drowned.” Then you'r off, and you just start to goof on the concept of swimming, talking about backstrokes and chlorine and cannonballs. That's how that particular song developed, but that's how a lot of them develop. On my latest album I wrote a song called “Spaced,” which is about trying to find a parking space in New York. You can write about a concept, or a particular subject, and that's one of the things I do – zero in on something and write about it for a three-minute song. That's my job. 


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