In his homeland (Wainwright was born in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina), his public profile is even lower. Twenty years ago he had 'a kind of hit single' with 'Dead Skunk', a jokily verminous highway-trauma number. This brought a brief glimpse of the big-time - getting picked up in limousines to go and judge skunk contests - but Wainwright quickly returned to being 'a bottom feeder - nibbling around the outside'. Is he worried by the fact that people might only remember him for a song about a dead skunk? 'In a way that's kind of a cool thing to be remembered for - I'd rather have a hit single about a dead skunk than 'I miss you, let's go to the mountains', or 'Colorado, you're the best'. Dead animals are forever.
'The problem with having a hit record is that you're expected to have another one, and preferably of the same ilk. When I made my next album, they said 'This is good, but where's the funny animal song?' ' Unwilling to make a career as a novelty artist, Wainwright has since managed to steer well clear of hit record problems, releasing strange, oddly moving albums on a variety of labels, and retaining a compact but appreciative following, particularly in England, where he lived for three years in the late Eighties ('I love the decay aspect - it's falling apart, which is kind of how I feel').
In the course of his 25 years in the business, some of Loudon's fans have progressed up their own career ladders in a more linear fashion. Virgin's new MD, Paul Conroy, used to listen to his albums when he was at college, tried to sign him to Stiff Records 12 years ago, and recently made him one of the few beneficiaries of the company's post-Branson clear-out. Wainwright does not see himself as a high-risk major label investment: 'The albums that I make are not expensive - what I spent on this one would probably pay for Guns N' Roses' deli platter.'
The record in question is History. It offers a distinct change in mood from the wise-cracking tone of his last, 1989's very entertaining Therapy (Silvertone), being considerably starker and more melancholic. 'Returning to America, and the things that made me go back there, had a lot to do with that,' Wainwright explains (his father, Life magazine columnist L S Wainwright Jnr, died and then Loudon found himself in a position that meant he had to live in New York with a 14-year-old daughter he hardly knew).
Wainwright's disarming honesty allows him to avoid the embarrassment that usually results when guitar-owning songwriters turn their attention away from cars, girls and drugs. Songs like 'Hitting You' map the uncharted territory of generational conflict in a way that is brave and affecting. And there aren't many other people who could write about a mid-life doctor's surgery crisis, incorporating a traumatic urine-sample, and make it funny. 'I went to the doctor and the doctor said, 'Friend, this should be the middle, but it could be the end' '.
History's jolliest moment is probably 'Talking New Bob Dylan', a 50th birthday tribute which doubles both as a generous critical assessment of the old wheezer's career ('Self Portrait - well . . . it was an interesting effort'), and an amusing look at the traumatic effect his stylistic switchbacks had on those, Wainwright and one Mr Springsteen among them, who were signed up to follow in his footsteps: 'They were looking for you and signing up others, we were new Bob Dylans, your dumb-ass kid brothers.'
Wainwright has always been much more than this. His musical hero was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who came to England in the Fifties to be part of the skiffle boom, but was also, according to Wainwright, 'The link between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, though he rarely gets the credit for it.' Inspiration came not only from this troubadour line, but also from the musical comedy tradition of Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. It is this heritage of smart rhymes and good lines that has kept Wainwright's work free of the pomposity that is the stock in trade of many better-known singer-songwriters. For him, writing and performing are 'opportunities to let the listener know that I don't know what the hell is going on'.
'History' (Virgin V2703) is out now. Wainwright plays the Borderline, W1 (071- 734 2095), on Thurs, Fri and 5-7 Oct.
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