In the 2005 film Junebug, Will Oldham’s character works for a Chicago curator, on the lookout for “outsider artists” in the backwoods of North Carolina for a big city gallery.
It’s not a bad metaphor for Oldham’s musical career. He’s spent much of the past two decades exploring the fringes of Southern musical traditions and giving voice to the raw, primal spirit of Appalachia. His artistic trajectory has been as gnarled and twisted as his mountain-man beard, traveling in and out of one quintessential American genre after another, noisy and raw one moment, bright and polished the next (he’s one of the only singers I’ve ever heard who can actually yelp on key). The man contains multitudes, and with 19 full-length albums, he’s had plenty of opportunities to explore them.
The Kentucky native’s first albums conjure up a dark, dreamy Faulknerian vision of the South, and the shadows of these earliest releases — so fixated on sex and drink and God and guilt — haunt even the sunniest of his later records. But just as his warmest songs have at least a hint of darkness to them, so too do his darkest songs bear a weird, black sense of humor. Oldham is as likely to laugh in the face of death as he is to feel paralyzed with fear by it. After all, this is a guy whose acting credits include Jackass 3D, Wonder Showzen, and a Kanye West video set on a farm.
The breadth of human experience covered by his lyrics, combined with the fact that he’s released almost one album a year for two decades, makes it difficult to parse Oldham’s work. Maybe “Counting Down” is one of the better arenas to try this. By looking at each album individually, we can observe his career in slow motion and at least attempt to trace a line through his massive discography, even if that line looks more than like a bird’s nest tangle of knots. We’ll try our best to unravel it. Keep in mind, the man has gone by a variety of aliases — Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bonny Billie, Palace Brothers, Palace SOngs, Palace Music, and Will Oldham, among others — so to best clarify our parameters, we considered for inclusion here only his studio albums as they are commonly defined — which leaves out an entire library of alternate material. For another day, perhaps.
For now, start the Countdown here.