Bonnie Prince Billy Talks the Free Florida Tour, Funeral Homes, and Cover Songs

Two musical masterminds, armed with pseudonyms, Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie Prince Billy) and Emmitt Kelly (AKA The Cairo Gang), will bravely head south, past the Florida state line to mercifully provide us with quality shows in our time of desperate musical need.

Oldham and Kelly's Free Florida tour will introduce all of us ignorant crackers to timeless, soulful, country music that is valued by Brooklynites and middle Americans alike. The show will be without charge and it will go down at our local record store, Sweat Records.

Owner Lauren Reskin said, "I did a total double-take when I saw the email from Drag City asking us if we'd host this in-store. Sounds corny, but this is basically a dream come true that just fell in our lap. We are beyond excited."

We spoke with Oldham about why he's gracing us with his presence. And then we harassed him about the importance of the cover song until he confirmed that Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen are pretty much the best.

Crossfade: I wanted to ask you about the Free Florida tour, is there any particular reason you targeted Florida? It's considered not a very musical state.

Oldham: In my experience of Florida being a very musical state, it's never been able to successfully arrange shows south of Tampa before. So it always felt like Florida was playing hard to get. And I thought, we're gonna just do it. And the way to do it right is to be determined and focused and not incorporate it into a tour of the Southeast. But just focus on Florida and we'll get it done.

As well as the idea that I like the adventure of touring, I like the idea of learning about the places where we go. The experience of it. And interacting with people and knowing that the infrastructure for record stores or clubs is different in Florida. It's different and so it means that it's still kind of a frontier, you know. And part of the reason I think that a lot of folks go on the road in the first place is to go out and explore, learn things. You can only learn so much from Cincinnati or Columbus. There is a boatload of untapped knowledge, I believe, in the mysterious, murky state of Florida.

We're definitely happy to have you coming. I read that you're going to be playing different sets at each stop. Is this going to accomplish anything in particular?

The advantage of playing these radio station shows, these record store shows is to play for free. [It] means that everybody who comes will get their money's worth. We'll play this set here and this set here. We'll be able to each day sort of decide how we're going to play and what we're going to play. It can be a completely different set of songs each time we play.

If we were playing shows where people had to pay $5, $10, $15 we would feel a responsibility to be very confident about most of what we were doing and have the sets still vary somewhat but also maybe have a core that we stick to from night to night. And I don't feel that when we're playing the free shows. It's like, we'll probably make some mistakes. But I think we will enjoy ourselves. And our hope is that the audience does as well.

Are you going to play any songs off the album that you did together?

Oh, yeah, for sure.

Any cover songs?

I'm sure there'll be brand new songs. There'll be songs off The Wonder Show of the World. And there'll be songs we've never played out before and cover songs and requests as well. That's another nice thing about playing shows both in radio stations set up for call-ins or just being in the record store with people standing right there. We'll try to make it as cooperative a show with the audience.

Do you have a particular record store that you think is the best record store in the world?

My taste in music is really a little different. So I like to go to record stores where I feel confident that I can find something that will be new to me, that I didn't know about when I walked in. I'm trying to think of reliable places.

These days in Louisville, the place that I like to go is a chain you all might have in Florida called Half Priced Books and Music. And it seems like their music stock is 100-percent used. They maintain a pretty solid vinyl stock and [it's] of insanely high quality. They might just have 300 to 400 records. But out of those, two-thirds or three-quarters are interesting records. They don't have a lot multiple copies of, like, the second Journey record. There's tons of everything, the spoken word, the religious, the comedy, world music, jazz, country.

You look through and you're like, "I had no idea those two artists worked together!" And it's $4.99, you know? So I like the music at the Half Priced Books and Music.

So, like you said, you have eclectic tastes. You were in the R. Kelly [Trapped in the Closet] video and I read that you're a big fan of Merle Haggard.


Is there anything in particular that makes a song appeal to you?

I think as somebody whose life is about making music, I like to be able to hear through the recording something about what's going on in the lead artist's mind or all of the other musicians, and then extending out into the engineer and/or producers. I like the idea of the idea. We listen to a record, and the record literally is a record. A record of an event that happened. And I can hear the relationship of the singer to the song or the singer to his or her voice, or the guitar player to the drummer.

And with Merle Haggard, he's a great songwriter and a great singer and a great musician who has a lot of respect for great musicians of the past and the great musicians he works with currently. He puts a premium on the ways you express emotion, including joy and celebration, and he's just kind of an ideal for me.

Listening to, say the records of Leonard Cohen ... Most every record of his feels like you can hear parts of the whole chain of creation, from writing of a line in a song to the way the voice interacts with an instrument in a recording, and how it was recorded. And to know that each of those steps was crucial. There was no one step. Without paying attention to each step, you'd have a worthless piece of music at the end.

Those are my favorite kind of records. Even if it means it's an ethnological recording where the musicians aren't necessarily attentive to, aware of, or concerned with how a piece is being recorded, their relationship to the piece and to each other is of a similar strength and energy to the person who's responsible for recording it. I don't like records where I feel like somebody doesn't care. Whether it's the bass player or the record company or the songwriter. If it sounds like somebody doesn't care in there, I don't have to waste my time on this.

Your upcoming album, "Mindeaters" is coming out next week with the Phantom Family Halo. How did you guys meet and decide to make this album?

Phantom Halo, until just a couple months ago, have been based in Louisville. Now they're based out of New York City. A good friend of mine, Todd Breshear, runs a local video store here called Wild and Wholly Video and he had his 13th anniversary show about a year ago. Roky Erickson was headlining and Phantom Family was also on the bill, and we all had the idea to cover this Everly Brothers song called "I Wonder If I Care As Much." It was just a really good experience.

So a few months later, Dominic from Phantom Family Halo got in touch, and said, "We've decided to record this song," and then he's like, "I've got an idea for a way of releasing this song and I've got these other songs I've been working on that I think would work really well with that song. And I've got an idea of how to record them."

At the time, his girlfriend was a mortician and they lived in the upstairs at the funeral home where she works. We just went over there and recorded up in the apartment above the funeral home.

That is spooky, but kind of awesome. 

A spooky and kind of rundown old funeral home, definitely not a high class place. But she got transferred to New York. Now she's a mortician in New York.

You do a lot of cover songs, I really enjoyed your "Thunder Road" cover and I know you've been covered by Johnny Cash. I just wanted to ask you if it's a sort of way of taking a song and making it new? Or if it's a form of flattery? How you feel about the cover song?

It's great to write songs. But it's crucial to keep songs alive as well, and to keep the awareness of songs and the awareness of artists alive. And then, of course, there's always the reality that there are things that one songwriter can do that another songwriter just can't do. And that doesn't mean that you are forbidden from accessing this world. You discover the song, and you learn from every song that you cover.

I learned about music through covers so often in my life. So when I was a kid and listening to Ramones records and on their first seven records or so, they always did a cover or two. [It was] so much fun at the time, before the internet, to spend weeks, months, or years trying to figure out, trying to get a copy of the original recording to see what the Ramones had done to the song.

It's such a country, Southern sort of tradition. 

In certain circles, the songwriter is a part of the community. So there's a community of musicians in country or in jazz or in a lot of old southern R&B and soul music, and there's the musicians, there's the lead artist, and then there's the songwriter and they're all part of a community. So, to cover somebody's song is to strengthen the community.

Bonnie Prince Billy and The Cairo Gang. Tuesday, May 31. Sweat Records, 5505 NE Second Ave., Miami. The show starts at 7 p.m. and it's free. Call 786-693-9309 or visit sweatrecordsmiami.com.

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