The cliché says musicians blaze bright and burn out fast. But some musicians, like Loudon Wainwright III, simply persevere. In the business since 1970 but not exactly a household name, Wainwright is a storytelling lyricist not constrained by the folk idiom (or any idiom, really). He’s a pop songwriter with a quirky personality and a dark sense of humor, and a musician deeply schooled in American music history but without reverence for any of it.
Wainwright’s also the infamous father of a couple of other insanely talented songwriters: Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright (Martha wrote a song about her dad, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”). Wainwright’s got some serious demons, but like Warren Zevon or Randy Newman, part of what makes him so pervasively likeable is he doesn’t attempt to hide them in his work.
From “Depression Blues” on his blues-leaning 2014 release Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), he sings over acoustic guitar: “Tell me what you plan to do about all of your depression?” And from the boogie-woogie album opener “Brand New Dance”: “That woman is a martyr/ You know that it’s true/ Who the hell else would put up with you … you wake up in the morning and look into the abyss.”
But Wainwright’s gallows humor is never far off. In “Brand New Dance” he sings, “That senior discount/ That’s my kind of treat!” And only Wainwright would write a holiday standard entitled “I’ll Be Killing You (This Christmas).”
But Wainwright’s at his best when he’s heartfelt. From the moving piano ballad “In C” on his 2012 release Older Than My Old Man Now: “And the children that we had are grown/ They’re out fending off their great unknown/ And I have noticed they are a little bit like me/ With a tendency to sing in C.”
Catch the Wainwright patriarch in his fourth performance at The Shedd.
Loudon Wainwright III performs 7:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 22, at The Shedd; $12-$32.