Loudon Wainwright III is one of America’s greatest artistic treasures. A prolific troubadour, an incisive humorist, a gifted character actor and the father of several similarly talented musical offspring, Wainwright is the first to admit he learned his craft from his father, celebrated Life columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., who wrote “The View From Here.” Loudon the younger, who’s built an admirable career writing intimate family portraits and witty tales of the garrulous American conscience, paid tribute to Loudon the elder with last year’s album “Older Than My Old Man Now.” The superb 15-song set includes collaborations with his ex-wife and four children, readings of his father’s work, somber ruminations on late-middle-age and morbidity and even jaunty numbers about “failing powers.”
Folio Weekly: Your father was 63 when he died, and you were 65 when you released “Older Than My Old Man Now.” Was this record on your radar for some time?
Loudon Wainwright III: I was aware of the fact that I was surpassing the age at which my dad died. So as I approached that marker, the idea of outliving him certainly struck me as interesting.
F.W.: Did your father’s literary life influence your own songwriting explorations?
L.W.: Yes — your parents are giant influences, whether you want them to be or not. My father was a very good writer who cared a lot about writing, so I picked that up from him. I spend a lot of time on my lyrics; I use the same five guitar chords I learned when I was 15, but words are very important to me.
F.W.: You say in your press release that the album deals with “death ’n’ decay,” but it sure sounds like a hoot. Is that one way of snubbing your nose at old age?
L.W.: I’m a switch hitter, so to speak. Some songs are quite serious, but others, even when they’re dealing with serious subjects like mortality, can be described as novelty songs — songs that are designed to make people laugh. The live show generally lasts about 75 to 90 minutes, so I like to move it around — keep an audience engaged. You don’t want to bum ’em out for the whole 75 minutes. Even songs like “My Meds” and “I Remember Sex,” which are about failing powers, don’t have to be a complete turn-off.
F.W.: In past interviews, you’ve joked that you drifted into your musical career. Does it really feel that happenstance?
L.W.: Well, it’s kind of a miracle that I still have the career. [Laughs.] But I work pretty hard at it; I was downstairs working when [you called]. As the song says, I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on. I don’t know who wrote that.
F.W.: How does your own writing process work? Do you have to force yourself to sit down? Or do you get inspired while taking a shower?
L.W.: You can get an idea in the shower, or the bathtub, or whatever mode of cleaning up you employ. Or you can jot things down; I travel all the time and am often in restaurants, so I keep a notebook with me. Sometimes somebody will suggest something; sometimes, a lot of time will go by when you haven’t written a song and you’ve just got to kick your ass and get to work. I try to play the guitar every day. I’ve often compared it to fishing: You just keep the line in the water and hope that something comes up.
F.W.: Your entire body of works deals with intimate family details. Do you ever feel like you’re over-sharing? Or does it feel natural to write about such everyday matters?
L.W.: They’re everyday things for me and everybody else, and that’s why it feels natural. There’s nothing unusual about what happens in my family — it’s what’s going on in everybody else’s families. That’s the identification factor. I don’t really see it as a strange topic.
F.W.: All of your children have turned out to be performers. Does that make you happy?
L.W.: Oh, it’s great that they’re working — and doing very well, I might add. Rufus’ and Martha’s mom was a singer, and Lucy, whose mother was also a musician and performer, is a singer and an actress now. So it’s not surprising that those kids, who aren’t kids anymore — Rufus is almost 40 — are out there making a living in show business.
F.W.: How about you? Are you still happy to be making a living in show business?
L.W.: I’m not the road animal I used to be. It’s harder and harder to get through airports and do the job of trudging from Point A to Point B. But I’m grateful to have the work — and looking forward to coming down to Florida.