"Whoa! There goes a snake," says a startled singer-songwriter Will Oldham from his back yard. A few minutes go by and then comes another interjection. "Two snakes! There's one hanging out on top of the daylilies, I've never seen that before." But the sudden appearance of serpents in a Will Oldham interview doesn't seem so inappropriate; the biblical imagery in many of his brooding, literate songs has always felt like it was descended from the gothic work of novelists like Flannery O'Connor and Harry Crews, two of his Southern peers. Since 1999, the singer-songwriter has recorded mostly as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and it's under that name that he will perform with Bitchin' Bajas at the Half Moon on June 21.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where he still lives, Oldham is himself an author (the 2012 autobiography Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy) as well as an accomplished actor whose first major role came when he was 16, in the 1987 John Sayles drama Matewan; other significant films include 2005's Junebug, 2006's Old Joy, and 2008's Wendy and Lucy. But it's music that continues to occupy the better part of Oldham's artistic endeavors, which began Louisville's thriving, self-sufficient 1980s underground rock scene. "We were digging, following clues to find ways of self-expression," Oldham recalls. While julep-sipping bluebloods and beer-chugging hillbillies whooped it up at Derby Day parties, punk clubs in the Highlands district rocked with the likes of the Babylon Dance Band, Malignant Growth, and Squirrel Bait. The last's members scattered to form, among other acts, influential instrumentalists Tortoise, with whom Oldham has recorded, and math rockers Slint.
Slint's Brian McMahan appears on the 1993 debut by Oldham's first recording project, the Palace Brothers, There is No-One What Will Take Care of You (Drag City Records, the home of most of his output). With its creaky brew of Appalachian-impressionist folk and parable-rich lyrics of sin and redemption, the album established the enigmatic Oldham as a major new voice. After another release as the Palace Brothers, Oldham made albums under his own name and as Palace Music, Palace Songs, and, simply, Palace. In on the Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle with I See a Darkness, whose soul-baring title track was recorded by Johnny Cash the following year. "I felt that since each record was its own thing, it didn't seem right to always the same name," he explains about the current moniker, which was partially inspired by that of 18th-century Jacobite pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. "But at the end of the day, that didn't make sense, in terms of selling records."
The newest Bonnie "Prince" Billy record is Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties (Drag City), a collaboration with Chicago experimental trio Bitchin' Bajas. Interestingly, Louisville's long-running lord of lo-fi is a fan of the extravagant MGM musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age, a medium that would seem a lot different than the raw DIY sound he's identified with. "I don't think [the two styles] are different, I think they're the same," he says. "What drew me to the MGM movies as a kid was the idea that you could wake up, look around, and just sing about anything. [Both styles] are about blurring the lines between music and life."
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bitchin' Bajas will perform at the Half Moon in Hudson on June 21 at 8pm. Highlife will open. Admission is $15. (518) 828-1562.