Will Oldham is not only a writer of great songs; he is a student of them. “When I heard the other kids around the campfire singing ‘Casey Jones,’ ‘Cortez the Killer,’ and ‘Jack & Diane,’ putting all of their hearts into the effort, I knew there was value in a well-built song,” he explains. “Writing songs is an attempt to build a bridge from my consciousness to the consciousness of another.” He has made his career by penning and covering tunes that do exactly that. At the downtown Durham studio Sound Pure, Oldham analyzes what makes a song resonate on those levels and offers insight into how he gets there, sampling from his career as he goes During the last quarter-century, few American singer-songwriters have inspired as much awe or intrigue as Will Oldham, best known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
In the mid-nineties, Oldham emerged from Kentucky’s thriving indie rock subculture with a voice and sensibility that seemed as old and as distinctive as the state’s knobby mountains and deep caverns. On songs that documented and questioned the story of human existence, Oldham’s country tenor wavered through an admixture of hurt and hope, cracking beneath the strain of experience. By lacing the folk storytelling of his native state with the more abstract inclinations of his modern peers, Oldham has happily crept along the border between the accessible and abstruse, like a traditional balladeer with a philosophy degree and a love of dark humor. As prolific as he is profound, Oldham has covered Merle Haggard, been covered by Johnny Cash, and collaborated with Eighth Blackbird on a song cycle that mesmerized a Duke Performances audience in 2017. He is one of the most engaged, engaging singers and songwriters of his generation. In Durham, the typically enigmatic Oldham steps into the spotlight as he never has. During a three-day residency, he dissects his approach to songwriting, explores the ideas and techniques behind his recordings, and concludes with a full-length concert in the acoustically brilliant Baldwin Auditorium.