Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Too Slippery For Such Simple Categorisations

BPBA recent trip into Manhattan and a stop at Strand Books yielded a $6.95 trade paperback edited by Alan Licht and titled Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy.  It wasn’t hard to miss. There must have been at least 100 or more in stock, sitting on several tables and display racks. It’s either a breakaway bestseller or there was a publisher error. I guess you’d call it simply an interview, with questions asked and answers given, but it reads more like just a conversation, which I imagine sets apart a good interview from a bad one.

Born in 1970, Oldham began acting in his early teens and started making music around the time he was about 22. I’m sorry to have missed his first wave of music that was released in the early ’90s on the Drag City label under various names: Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, and just plain Palace.

If you’re unfamiliar with those Palace records or his later work, I’ll quote Licht in the book’s introduction to give you context:

Emerging from the indie-rock scene of the early 1990’s, Palace was at times lumped in with the ‘No Depression’ alternative country-rock bands like Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo, or with the lo-fi movement identified with Sebadoh, Daniel Johnston, Guided by Voices or Drag City label-mate Smog, and later Bonnie Prince Billy was occasionally held up as a forebear of the ‘freak-folk’ scene of the past decade. Yet the music is too slippery for such simple categorisations. It touches on – refracts, really – rock, pop, folk, country, bluegrass and ethnic music without hybridising any of them.

In 2003 Grant Alden of No Depression the magazine, not the genre, wrote a review of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest release Master and Everyone. And he shared some history.

Years ago I reviewed an early Palace release for Spin, and while I can’t remember which record it was, I know the review was a glowing bit of work-for-hire. Little enough had come my way then (say, Mazzy Star, or Mark Lanegan, both of which remain fond memories), that played so elegantly with the roar of silence, and Palace clearly and distinctly drew from a rural, country tradition. Both of which seemed like good ideas.

A while later I lasted half a set in a crowded club, for none of us had heard the like, and we all had to see. Oldham, the lead singer and provocateur of Palace, spent the whole evening dodging a solitary spotlight. Then Allison Stewart interviewed him for these pages, and he spoke at some length of an imaginary dog.

Finally, he said this in a December 1998 edition of Time Out New York: “No Depression seems like a culturalist, racist magazine to me, about a certain kind of white music.” We have not had occasion to write about Mr. Oldham’s varied exploits since.

He’s an odd duck, an ex-actor who keeps adopting new musical personae, aggressively passive aggressive. And I have come not to like him; that is, not to like his work, to feel violated by all the artifice with which he surrounds ostensibly artifice-free music, to mistrust his motives. This is a problem, when the singer’s principal illusion is intimacy, and it is especially a music critic’s problem, separating the artist from the art.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be believed, but Master And Everyone is, as advertised, a beautiful piece of work.

Probably the best thing about Bonnie “Prince” Billy is that I missed all the stuff that Grant spoke of, and was able to experience the music on its own without knowing a lick about where it came from, how or who made it, and what it was supposed to sound like. No expectations. By the time my kid flipped me a flash drive filled with Palace’s music and told me fire up the ‘Pod, it was 2008 and that concept was a decade and a half in the dust. It amazed me. And still does.

Two summers ago, I got a chance to see him and Dawn McCarthy on the stage of New York’s Town Hall with Van Campbell, Emmett Kelly, and Cheyenne Mize. They were at the end of a tour. The album that they played songs from was a tribute to the Everly Brothers called What the Brothers Sang. This is how I described their performance at that time:

Sitting on chairs that looked as if they were bought at a store specializing in selling used office equipment, and while holding blunt instruments in their hands … I witnessed a murder. Note by note, song by song. They killed it. They killed it … meaning it was one of the most memorable, loving, kind, considerate, joyful, musical, harmonious, respectful, caring and beautiful hundred minutes of concert give and take one could hope for.

I’m more than two-thirds of the way through this 329-page interview and I’m finding it hard to put down. Maybe I’m trying to rush to the end, where a 25-page discography awaits, and a seven-page passage called ‘A Cosmological Timeline’. This is a good book to read if you want to learn stuff you didn’t know you needed to know. Admit it: you had not a clue that in 1971 Meatloaf played the role of Ulysses S. Grant in a touring production of Hair. Right?

This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.