In 1925, North Carolina singer and banjoist Charlie Poole's "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues" sold 102,000 copies, an amazing figure for a so-called hillbilly artist. Poole was a hard-living rounder who died at 39 in 1931, after a binge that lasted 13 weeks. Songs he made famous were kept alive by Bill Monroe, whose bluegrass innovations owed plenty to Poole's North Carolina Ramblers. Harry Smith included him on his now-legendary Anthology of American Folk Music. He's been covered by such moderns as Jerry Garcia, The Chieftains and Tom T. Hall. Nevertheless, Poole remains obscure. Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III means to change that with a two-CD tribute to Poole called High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.
High Wide & Handsome was produced by Dick Connette, who along with Wainwright wrote or co-wrote nine of its 29 songs. This is fitting, in part, because Poole wasn't a songwriter — he was an irrepressible entertainer whose material ranged from crazy old folk songs to W.C. Handy blues to Tin Pan Alley parlor ballads. Wainwright's version of the craziest folk song here, "I'm the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World," borrows verses from everywhere, but begins with the two that also kicked off Poole's original recording.
The other reason High Wide & Handsome accommodates new songs so readily is that it's a kind of musical documentary: Most of the new material is about Poole, as well as sung in his manner. These include descriptions of his first recording session and his last drinking spree. But my favorite is a song he couldn't have sung — a song Wainwright couldn't have sung, either. It's from the point of view of Poole's wife, and it's performed by one of Wainwright's many singing ex-sisters-in-law, Maggie Roche.
On Sept. 15, Loudon Wainwright, Dick Connette, their musicians and most of Wainwright's family celebrated High Wide & Handsome in a one-of-a-kind concert at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom. It would be nice if this project became so renowned that it generated more such events. But Wainwright told us he had a more modest goal: a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame for a rambling man named Charlie Poole.