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Loudon Proud

Loudon Wainwright III has always been one of the most charming of reprobates, and he pays respect to his elders on his new full-length High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. Wainwright's fascination with the life and music of the great North Carolina banjoist and singer makes for a first-rate history lesson, but Poole's brief, tumultuous career prefigured both country music and rock 'n' roll, which means High Wide & Handsome is far from a dry retelling of Poole's amazing story. The record proves that reprobates can make good when you least expect them to.

Wainwright gained fame in the 1970s as a waggish folk musician with a flair for describing the complexities of human relationships. His 1973 hit "Dead Skunk" sounded crazily obsessive at its funniest, while mordant songs such as "Motel Blues" amounted to a brilliant critique of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Wainwright might have been a bad boy, but he was a rank amateur compared to Charlie Poole, who drank himself to death at 39 while helping to create modern American music.

With the aid of musicians on the order of Chaim Tannenbaum and Maggie Roche, Wainwright gooses Poole's classic material. "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," a prototypical 1925 country hit, gets a subtly avant-garde treatment. Wainwright rounds out Poole's story with original tunes that make the connection between Poole's roisterous era and Wainwright's world of middle-class folkiedom.

High Wide & Handsome becomes a tragic tale with Poole starring as genius, fool and heroic drunk. "Song, wine and women—they're my three favorites," Wainwright sings. It sounds like fun, but Poole—dead from the results of a 13-week alcoholic binge in 1931—tested the limits of fun and lost. Rock 'n' rollers with lingering notions of indestructibility will find Wainwright's insights undeniable. Wainwright appears at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Saturday, Aug. 1 at 1:30 p.m. EDD HURT

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