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Loudon Wainwright III on family and ‘Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet)’

Loudon Wainwright III's latest album, "I Ain't Got the Blues (Yet)," was released Tuesday. Above, the singer-songwriter in July at the West Hollywood home of a friend.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

After more than 40 years, acclaimed singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is finally devoting more time to his first love as an entertainer: acting.

“I went to drama school — Carnegie Mellon [University] in Pittsburgh — then I became a hippie, then I became a musician,” said Wainwright, who turned 68 last week. “But I’ve always wanted to take what I do and kind of theatricalize it, put it into a bigger context.”

Wainwright has dabbled in acting, with TV roles on “MASH” in the ‘70s and Judd Apatow’s short-lived Fox series “Undeclared” in 2001. Lately however he’s been delving more deeply into this side of his talents with “Surviving Twin,” a one-man show he performed in a monthlong residency at the West Side Theatre in New York City. The project blends his own songs with writings by his father, longtime Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright II.

Family relationships have been a cornerstone of Wainwright’s work since his 1970 debut album, “Loudon Wainwright,” and the new show is no exception, although it brings another perspective into the conversation.

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“My father had died at 63, so when I hit 64, I went back and reread all his columns, and I thought, ‘Wow, this could be the prose voice of the piece’,” said Wainwright, who earned a Grammy for his 2009 album, “The Charlie Poole Project.” “I take my songs and use his writing as kind of introduction to the songs, as links with the songs, or in combination with the songs.”

Some of the same themes carry through on his new latest album, “Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet),” which was released Tuesday. He incorporated a couple of his father’s pieces with his summer performance at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park, including “Another Sort of Love Story,” a poignant song recounting the day their family’s dog was put to sleep.

“The revelation was that when those columns came out in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I didn’t read all of them, because I was an angry young man who was in an Oedipal struggle with his father — go figure,” said Wainwright, who is now a father of four and a grandfather of three.

“When I reread them three years ago, I was knocked out by the personal stuff. The dog column of course was a killer,” he said. “And there’s a wonderful piece he wrote that’s in the show called ‘Disguising the Man’ about buying a London-tailored suit in the ‘60s.

“A lot of them had to do with current events,” said Wainwright, who returns to L.A. for a show at Largo at the Coronet on Oct. 15. “But when he got personal, I thought that was his best stuff: the fire that burned our house down, putting his mother in a nursing home. So I mostly took the personal stuff that was connected with my personal stuff. And I think it’s a good fit.”

Wainwright’s music has its share of lighthearted moments, none more than his 1972 hit single “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road),” but he’s also returned to matters of family bonds, the splintering of those bonds and fitful efforts to repair the damage.

The focus also extends to his own children, which includes son Rufus Wainwright and daughters Martha Wainwright (both from his marriage to singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle) and Lucy Wainwright Roche from his marriage to Roches member Suzzy Roche.

An unflinching artist, Wainwright invited Martha to sing her half of his scathing 1995 song “Father-Daughter Dialogue,” in which a father is castigated by his daughter for rarely being present in her life. On the new album, he turns more reflective with “I Knew Your Mother,” a song about McGarrigle he wrote with Rufus in mind.

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“I was there actually when Kate [died],” he said. “At that point she was in a coma pretty much, but I’m glad I went, to be there. And that song reflects that.

“So much has been said or written in song and otherwise about my relationship with Kate being kind of a combative, difficult one -- and it was,” he added. “It was a tough marriage and it didn’t last. There’s nothing unusual about that.

“But we were in love, we had a ball and we had a thing going on before those kids came along, and I think that was an important thing to say in a song,” he said. “As a kid you forget that your parents had a life previous to your arrival.

“When your parent dies, it’s a momentous, huge event and certainly Kate was such a powerful person and mother. So when she died, they were devastated,” he said.

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“In terms of how it affected my relationship with them, I like to think that things are going pretty good these days. Nobody seems to be yelling at each other.”

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter for pop music coverage


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