I first interviewed singer and songwriter Will Oldham a couple months ago when I found out that a statue of him was being erected in Oldham County, Kentucky.
Well, it’s wasn’t technically of him. Oldham, perhaps better known by the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, stood in Revolutionary War-era garb (and had a plaster cast made of his face) for Louisville sculptor Matthew Weir to aid in creating a statue of Colonel William Oldham.
The result was wonderful, if a little weird—much like Oldham’s career, which continues to surprise and evolve.
He’s released more than 20 studio albums, and just put out Songs of Love and Horror, an album and corresponding book that revisits much of his old work. His music was covered by Johnny Cash. He’s had a number of film roles, ranging from an appearance in A Ghost Story, wherein he waxes on about the concept of legacy, to a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D. He has also released several beer collaborations.
Oldham had just returned from a tour when we spoke this time, during which he talked about how his interest in craft beer initially developed.
When you’re home in Louisville. where do you find yourself drinking most nights? Is there a brewpub you like?
Yeah, I don’t really go out.
So then what is your at-home beer right now?
We just got back from a tour. One of shows was in Nelsonville, Ohio—which is adjacent to Athens, Ohio—and there were a couple strong breweries there. One was called Little Fish, one was called Jackie O’s. And care packages were delivered from both breweries to the venue. One of the beers from Little Fish I was curious to try, especially because it is called “Lay & Love,” which is named after a song of mine.
I drank that last night. It was a sour with blackberry.
On that note, you’ve partnered a few times with Stillwater Artisanal Ales. How’d that collaboration start?
Through the Holy Grale and Louisville Beer Store; they had a relationship with Brian [Strumke], he’s the brewer at Stillwater. A number of years ago, maybe four or five years ago, they had arranged a brunch at Holy Grale centered around Stillwater beer pairings with Josh Lehman’s food, who was the chef at the time.
Tyler [Trotter] and Lori [Beck] from the Holy Grale and Beer Store, they said, “You might want to come to this,” and seated me next to Brian. We just started talking and found that while our mediums are different, but we had a lot in common in how we approached our own work and the work of others—and the conversation just continued from there.
And you’ve now had two or three beers out with them?
And what are those like?
Well, the first, we did a musical collaboration. Tyler Trotter is in a group called Watter with Zac Riles, so the two of them and me, we created a musical entity called “Bonnie Stillwatter,” and made a song. Then, over the course of six months, discussed with Brian what we were doing.
He came to some of the recording or working out sessions of the song, and we discussed along the way what the beer was doing. It ended up being a mild sour.
Then together we did a tour for the song in New York City, where we played six or seven beer bars around the city over the course of the day. We would load in, set up, play—we would play two songs, “The Devil Is People,” which was the beer song, and then a cover of Aphrodite’s Child’s “The Four Horsemen.”’ Then we would break down, have a beer, then go to the next place.
It was so nice to see that kind of grassroots creativity and excitement going on because this was a time when record stores were closing; but beer stores were opening and interesting breweries were opening.”
You had said you don’t go out, so this question may not be super applicable, but how would you describe the beer scene here in Louisville? I’ve lived here a few years and it seems like it just continues to grow.
For me, my interest in beer began, like, two ways. One was with the 90s. We used to play at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, at Dogfish Head Brewery; at the time, it was like brewpub, I don’t think they bottled or distributed anything at all. But we developed a relationship with Sam Calagione, the main brewer.
Then, in the early 2000s, there was an article about me in The New Yorker, and I hadn’t spoken to Sam in a long time, but he reached out to me and he said, “Oh, I loved that article. Did you see the article about Dogfish Head?” And I hadn’t.
In the intervening years, I had seen some Dogfish beers in stores, and just thought it didn’t jive with this small operation that we had experienced, so I thought, “Maybe it’s not the same place or maybe they sold.”
But he asked if we’d seen their New Yorker article, and I hadn’t; when I read that, it was really interesting, the ways they were experimenting with and approaching beer. I started to look for their beers, because we weren’t getting their beers in Louisville.
Then maybe around that time I was on a plane to Europe to play some shows, and I ended up being seated next to Tyler Trotter. So, at this time we didn’t know each other, but we had a bunch of mutual friends and became friends on that flight.
When I got back to the States, maybe six months later, I saw in the newspaper a piece about The Beer Store opening, but whoever wrote the copy for the photograph got the wrong name for Tyler; it was like “Thomas Trotter,” and I remember thinking, “Oh, it must be his brother, but this is interesting.”
Then I learned more about it, found out it was Tyler, and sort of learned through them what was happening in the United States specifically and some parts of the world as far as beer. It was so nice to see that kind of grassroots creativity and excitement going on because this was a time when record stores were closing; but beer stores were opening and interesting breweries were opening.
This gave me something to do when I traveled, something to explore.
So for me, the Louisville beer scene—fairly or unfairly—continues to be defined by The Beer Store, Holy Grale, and Gralehaus. We have a lot of breweries that have opened up; some are high-quality, some aren’t. I’m not that interested in going to a brewery that just wants to introduce their IPA, their Berliner Weisse, their Scotch ale. So on some levels, it’s expanded beyond my interest level.
Hearing anybody talk about what they care about is inspirational. And if you care about what they care about, it ups the fun.”
Kind of transitioning to music—one of my favorite songs of yours, and I doubt I’m alone in this, is “I See a Darkness.” And it’s a song that’s evolved over your career. It was initially released in 1999, then it was covered by Johnny Cash. Then you made the choice to re-release a more upbeat version in 2012. What was behind that decision?
Oh, because there was a book-length interview coming out overseas, primarily, called “Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.” The record label over there thought it would be interesting if there was some sort of release to go with that.
So, I thought we could put a “greatest hits” out and there was a great band I was working with at the time—including Emmett Kelly and Van Campbell from here and three folks from Chicago—and I just picked six songs that I thought might be good candidates for a “greatest hits” record, so we played them every night on a tour.
Then we stopped by Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago and recorded them all in a row, just to be this EP that could come out in association with the book.
I don’t know—did you know about the “I See a Darkness” beer?
No, no, I didn’t. Tell me about that.
The “I See a Darkness” beer was brewed in collaboration with Sante Adairius, which is based in Capitola, California, and Tired Hands, which Dr. Dog referred to, which is in Pennsylvania. They made a really good beer together.
So, a song that is totally different in style, “Blueberry Jam.” The music video includes you and your wife, painted blue. Like Tobias Bluth-style almost. Can you tell me where the idea for that came from?
The music video was made in collaboration with Tim Morton, who I knew a lot through music here. He is involved significantly in the shape note singing scene and we have a lot of mutual friends. He was working at Olmsted Parks and he quit that job to start a video production company; I worked with him on a mockumentary about “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” When I saw it, he had such natural comic instincts and everything for that video just came up through brainstorming.
If you could have a beer with three musicians, living or dead, who would you choose?
I don’t know. I mean, I never really liked beer—it’s only in this creative explosion that’s happened over the last 15 years or so that I found it interesting. I don’t just drink beer for fun. Like music, it plays to such particular desires and tastes, there are musicians who I know and love, I can’t have a beer with them because they don’t care about the beers I’m interested and I don’t care about what they are interested in…
...so maybe it’s a flawed question in that sense?
Right, in reading the article you sent, there was a question, “Who have you shared a beer with?” And, like. the most exciting thing over the last decade in drinking beer with people is drinking beer with the brewers, meeting the brewers who are responsible for these beers.
Do you enjoy hearing their creative process?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Hearing anybody talk about what they care about is inspirational. And if you care about what they care about, it ups the fun.
Photo by Ryo Mitamura