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Book: Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy

As a musician, Will Oldham hasn’t made consistency a priority. Over the last twenty years, he’s used a clutch of aliases—Palace Brothers and Bonnie “Prince” Billy are two of the better-known ones—and has changed his performing style radically and repeatedly. He’s played with subtle, virtuosic ensembles; friends who barely seem to know the songs they’re playing; and sometimes, that most reliable of bands: a backing tape. As an interview subject, though, Oldham is patient, clear, and surprisingly charming. “Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy,” which comes out in September, is an almost three-hundred-page interview conducted by Oldham’s friend and collaborator, the musician Alan Licht.

The book is an easy sell to Oldham fans, but it is should find a wider audience. Oldham covers his career in detail—leaving the world of acting (watch a very young Oldham not shoot someone in John Sayles’s “Matewan”) to join the world of his Louisville friends playing in bands. But the larger points about life and songwriting are applicable way beyond the particulars of one artist. It’s a gentle kind of advice book, in some ways. Tell your friends when you dream about them “so they know where you’re coming from next time they see you.” Stick to two drinks because “after that second drink it seems to be about forcing the world to go away and shutting down.” (Oldham also doesn’t much like big-box shows.) And there are plenty of anecdotes; any fan of Oldham or Johnny Cash should head straight for the story of Cash covering “I See a Darkness” and letting Oldham guide him through the recording.

Sasha Frere-Jones

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