Will Oldham, who are we really talking about? During his ongoing music career, this man from Louisville, Kentucky (who still calls this city his home), has presented his music through a number of names, or should we call them aliases?
Probably both. He did record briefly under his own name, and that was not in the beginning, but, as Palace (in three or four variations of that name), and for a while now as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, through quite a few albums, EPs and singles, as well as almost countless collaborations, covering a musical ground that goes from folk to psych to electronic and what not else.
All above, reasons for many to dub him ‘a true musical chameleon.’ But is he really? Or, should we just exclude that term musical here? After all, he is (or was, or still is?) an actor, a poet, a photographer (as was his father), a producer… you can probably add a few other things in there that we maybe don’t even know about. Or, maybe Oldham doesn’t deserve to be called a chameleon, maybe he’s just somebody who needs a few facets to express his art. And what he does certainly needs to be called art.
It All Started with Acting
Oldham was actually an actor first. He was not yet out of his teens when he starred in John Sayles’ cult classic Matewan (1987) as the child preacher Dany Radnor. Even that was not his first role, as he first appeared in Jerry Reed’s What Comes Around (1985). And he’s been appearing in various acting roles and films ever since. You might as well also add some 24 soundtrack credits to his name either as a writer or as a performer.
Then, it was photography, something Oldham picked up from his father, who on the other hand was a lawyer too. Mostly. Fans of the ’90s cult band Slint hold in dear memory Spiderland, their second (and last) album, keeping the memory of its cover with the four members barely sticking their head out of the water in black and white. That was Oldham too.
Then, sometime in the early ’90s, Oldham decided to devote most of his time to the music.
Palace Can Be Grand, or it Could Be Ruins
At one of his concerts in The Netherlands (Oldham always preferred venues that have a certain level of intimacy), performing one of the songs he announces as ‘relatively new’ he got quite an enthusiastic response from the audience. His comment was: “Well, I guess, I’ll skip this one for my next record.”
Somehow that perfectly fits the general idea of Oldham’s musical career from its outset. Starting out, Oldham worked under the confines of a band, or, at least it should have been a band. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was Oldham pretending to be a band. It all went during the ’90s under the variations of the name Palace: Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music. Just Palace too. On practically all of those, Oldham worked on all the possible variations of folk and country, which one critic dubbed as “Appalachian post-punk solipsism.”
Oldham worked on all the possible variations of folk and country, which one critic dubbed as “Appalachian post-punk solipsism”
Actually, it all started out as Palace Flophouse, named after a shed in John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row.’ Whatever it was, it was dominated by Oldham’s often fragile vocals, that you thought might break at any moment, but they never do. And even more so, by his lyrics that varied from pastoral to horror, making the term ‘gothic’ seem mild in comparison. After all, he was the guy who at one point in time sang: “If I could fuck a mountain, Lord, I would fuck a mountain.” Essentially, it could be a grand palace or that Steinbeck shed. In most cases, it was both at the same time.
Talking about these (and possibly latter name changes) Oldham spoke in one of his (rare) interviews:
“Well, I guess the idea is that when you have a name of a group or an artist, then you expect that the next record if it has the same name, should be the same group of people playing on it. And I just thought we were making a different kind of record each time, with different people, and different themes, and different sounds. So I thought it was important to call it something different so that people would be aware of the differences.”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy Enters the Scene
There was yet another ‘changeling’ tradition Oldham has kept and is still keeping. If he issued a version of a song on a single or an EP, he would not repeat it on an album. Of course, unless he was doing completely different versions of his songs, like on Sings Palace Music (2004) that includes ‘standard country’ versions of his Palace material (of course as Bonnie ‘Prince Billy) or Songs of Love and Horror (2018), where he presented all-acoustic versions of songs from his career that far.
If he issued a version of a song on a single or an EP, he would not repeat it on an album
Of course, for the latter, Oldham stayed true to himself, at the same time doing a change on the title of one of Leonard Cohen’s iconic album (Songs of Love and Hate), and issuing a book of his lyrics under the same name.
Was any of it popular? Well, if you look at it chart-wise, maybe not that much, but that is probably the way Oldham wants it to be. It seems that any kind of mainstream popularity is not his thing. Maybe one of the reasons he decided to abandon the Palace concept sometime around 1997, and release the first album under his proper name (Joya).
But, as the century drew to a close, Oldham decided to come up with yet another persona change. The choice came down to Bonnie “Prince” Billy. According to Oldham, “[t]he name has so many different references that it could almost have a life of its own. Bonnie Prince Charlie has such a beautiful ring to it, and I was very conscious of appropriating that mellifluous sound. And I was also thinking about the name Nat King Cole. But it wasn’t until later, and this may have been subconscious, that I remembered that Billy the Kid was William Bonney or Billy Bonney.”
“Billy’s not a pop alter ego in the traditional Ziggy Stardust/Slim Shady sense—a secret sharer who’s really just your favorite singer in a different shirt. He’s more like a creative tax shelter, a way for Oldham to access the intimacy and immediacy of the first person (and the utility of a fixed band name) while distancing himself from what he’s bringing forth. Billy’s work is bleak and beautiful, and the songs return over and over to a handful of themes: God’s cruel absence; the all-importance of small kindnesses in the face of that absence; the sad, empty kingdoms men build for themselves to rule unopposed.”
Somehow, that is a fitting description of everything Oldham has done since his 1999 album I See Darkness — first under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker. It is one of his most known works too, partly due to the fact that Johnny Cash included a version of the title song on his now-iconic album American III: Solitary Man (with Oldham singing background vocals).
That was not the sole recognition, nor was it the sole collaboration Oldham got or did. For example, he is a good friend of Jonathan Richman, another music maverick. As Oldham told Pappademas, on one occasion, when Richman was a guest at Oldham’s house, Oldham had to step out to buy laundry detergent. Richman came along with his guitar and serenaded Oldham all the way to the drugstore and back as if reprising his role as the one-man Greek chorus from There’s Something About Mary.
And then there are Oldham’s practically countless collaborations and guest appearances. From his brilliant Superwolf collaborations with guitarist Matt Sweeney, singer Dawn McCarthy, The Cairo Gang (aka Emmett Kelly), and Chicago electronic experimentalists Bitchin’ Bajas.
Still, there are quite a few names that can be added there, like that of a Swedish soccer player turned singer/songwriter Nicolai Dunger (Tranquil Isolation, 2003).
Most recently, he and a fellow dark soul, Bill Callahan, did a series of singles in collaboration with other artists doing versions of other people’s songs. But with all of those, and with all the changes, there are a few things that remain the same with Will Oldham. He is never in the same place at one time, and you simply can’t get around (and shouldn’t) his inimitable vocals and incredible lyrics.