He was a North Carolina mill worker, moonshiner and gambler, with a penchant for trouble - he didn't back down from engaging in fisticuffs with police - and an understanding wife who would bail him out from said trouble.
And through it all, Charlie Poole wielded his banjo with gusto, launching a spate of recordings that preserve that charm, years after his early death at age 39.
But while he had enjoyed regional popularity as a player of "old time" country/bluegrass in the late 1920s, Poole never got to achieve the longstanding fame - not to mention fortune - that others enjoyed from the surge in interest in country music after the Depression.
Poole's knockabout life and times provide the inspiration for a compelling musical portrait found in the colorful 2-CD set, "High Wide and Handsome."
Singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who collaborated on the set (subtitled "The Charlie Poole Project") with producer/songwriter Dick Connette, was introduced to Poole's recordings more than three decades ago, and was attracted to his playful lyrics and haughty delivery.
"I see some connections between Charlie Poole and myself," said Wainwright, who grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., but was born in North Carolina. "My mother's from the rural Deep South, from a little town called Tifton, Ga., so the Southerness of it had a certain appeal to me. Also the fact that he was an entertainer and a traveler and a showman. That's been my job for almost 40 years now.
Wainwright says the fact that Poole "fell through the cracks" was also appealing. "Not many people know about Charlie Poole," Wainwright said. "When I'm doing shows I'll do a little audience survey, and in a club of maybe 300 or 400 people, maybe four people raise their hand. Whereas if you talk about Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family or any of his contemporaries, a hundred people might, if they know anything about country music."
Poole made about a hundred recordings in seemingly every genre, notes Connette: "He did sentimental songs, he did bawdy songs, he did minstrel songs, gospel songs, Broadway songs, British ballads, proto bluegrass - all over the map." He mused that the inability to pigeonhole such a disparate repertoire made it harder for the public to "get" Poole, in ways that Jimmie Rodgers, the "Singing Brakeman," was not.
Wainwright once entertained the idea of writing a film based on Poole's life, but when Connette proposed a CD of songs based on Poole's recordings, it opened the inspirations to a sort of "audio biopic" - doing more than simply cover songs that Poole himself played (which were covers to begin with).
Wainwright and Connette collaborated on several new songs inspired by the rambling musician's life and times, from his brief burst of fame when he recorded songs in New York City (as part of a trio, the North Carolina Ramblers) to his fondness for liquor, and of the wife he left back home in Spray as he musically barnstormed across the South.
"Once you get involved, the deeper you go the more there is to find," Connette said. "But I think if you compare Charlie Poole to, say, the Carter Family, whom I love, as a character there is something very winning about him. He was a rapscallion. He's not a simple character. There was a lot about him that was reprehensible. But there is this life force there, there was a richness. He was both enlivening to be around but he might rob you of your last five dollar bill if you don't watch him. There's something very attractive and true about him. It seems very human, finally tragically in that his life became a fast-running machine that finally killed him. Neither Loudon nor I romanticize that, [but] we find it very compelling."
The two did not try to copy Poole's sound, though. "Neither Loudon nor I are preservationists or reconstructionists," Connette said. "There are bands that devote themselves to recreating earlier styles. That's neither Loudon nor me."
"We were trying to inhabit this world a bit and bring our own abilities as songwriters into play," said Wainwright (left). "We wrote some material based on things that happened to him or that in our imaginations at least might have been suitable for him to sing."
On "High Wide & Handsome" Wainwright and his collaborators, which include several relatives or former in-laws - he's been married a few times - play variations on a theme of Poole. From the banjo player's canon, there are "Took My Gal Out Walkin'" (which at the end of the track features a few seconds of Poole himself playing), "I'm the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World," "Goodbye Booze," "If I Lose," "Moving Day," and "Awful Hungry Hash House," whose lyrics best capture the spirit of the man:
There's a hotel in this town of dubious renown,
Where they serve the hash up on the second floor,
There's a graveyard in the cellar, doctor's office in the parlor,
And the undertaker's got his shop next door. . . .
And I'm never fully rested, 'cause the room I rent's infested,
And the critters all have nested in my clothes,
And the fleas, they hold me down, while the chinches creep around,
And the bedbugs play pinochle on my nose
But what give "High Wide & Handsome" its depth are the songs written by Wainwright and Connette, singly and together, that evoke Poole's crowded, colorful and brief life, from his hail-fellow-well-met ways to his long-suffering wife, as in "The Man in the Moon." Maggie Roche (an ex-sister-in-law of Wainwright) does a beautiful job with the wistful lyrics:
Now and again out of nowhere,
He'd come back with his hat in his hand,
And I could never stay angry
With that dear sweet impossible man.
Sometimes he'd sing in the kitchen,
Sometimes we'd cuddle and spoon,
But mostly I couldn't help feeling
Like I married the man in the moon.
It was hard being married to Charlie.
Wainwright's own background informed the project as well, using love letters his maternal grandfather wrote while courting his destined-to-be grandmother as the lyrics to "Rowena."
(Pictured: One iteration of the North Carolina Ramblers: Poole, his brother-in-law Posey Rorer on fiddle, and Roy Harvey on guitar.)
In July 1925 Poole, along with his brother-in-law, fiddler Posey Rorer, and guitarist Norman Woodlieff, auditioned for Columbia Records in New York and were immediately signed to record on their "old time" music series. Their first release, a recording of "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues" paired with "Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister," sold an astounding 102,000 copies - ten times what the Columbia series typically sold. But Poole and his partners did not get rich off their success - they earned a whopping $75 for their first recordings.
"I think the fact that he went to New York and made that record and it was a huge hit and then they were paying $75 between the three of them, that's the only money he ever saw from that," Wainwright said. "The music business never really changes!"
Returning to the South, the Ramblers performed in churches, schoolhouses, theaters and on street corners, with Poole punctuating his playing with somersaults, jokes and nonsensical banter - and a stream of postcards sent home to his wife Emma, as he traveled through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and other parts yonder.
Connette says Poole's quality of being in the moment, of being so baldly in touch with his appetites, made his presentation very clear and winning. "The same thing that made Babe Ruth want to jump on a fast ball, made Charlie Poole jump on his own life in all sorts of different ways, including excessive drinking.
"He didn't really look past the next day," said Connette. "But that immediacy is what made him a great performer, a great interpreter."
In terms of musicianship, Wainwright says Poole stands as a bridge between two styles of bluegrass banjo playing: clawhammering and the three-finger picking popularized by Earl Scruggs. If anything, Poole's distinctive fingering may be as the result of his affinity for bending an elbow.
"One of the reasons he played the way he played is that he injured his hands," Wainwright said. "This is so perfectly Charlie Poole: As a young man he played amateur baseball. He bet some guy that his friend could throw a baseball at him as hard as he wanted to and he could catch it without a mitt, without a glove. And he did this - he might have been drunk, sounds like he might have been drunk, kind of thing he would do if he were drunk - and it broke a couple of bones in his hand. And that informed the way that he played the banjo. It's one of those freak things in life, you could say his self-destructive behavior helped create the bluegrass/Scruggs style, if you wanted to stretch it."
Reportedly, he lost the bet.
"He had that kind of bravado," Wainwright said. "And that's one of the things I try to capture in the song 'High Wide & Handsome,' that kind of arrogance, that kind of I may be killing myself but I'm out here having a good time, check it out, we're not here long!"
Connette notes the "blithe desperation" in the song "High Wide & Handsome," ruefully aware of the joy and loss found in life. "That was one of the first one's Loudon wrote," he said, "I thought, 'Oh boy, we're on to something now!' That immediately became the name of the album: There it is, that's it."
High wide and handsome - that's how I like livin',
High wide and handsome - that's how life should be.
Low skinny and ugly - that's for other people.
High wide and handsome suits me to a tee.
Song, wine, and women - there's my 3 favorites.
Beer, gin, and whiskey - that's 5, 6, and 4.
Saturday night I like eatin' and dancin'
And I sleep all day Sunday so's I'm ready for more.
It was only a slightly more lucrative offer that later brought Poole back to the recording studio, but disagreement over royalties led to a split with Rorer. And the drinking certainly didn't help.
"When the Depression hit, his records stopped selling," said Connette, "and his audience, which he would go from town to town and play churches, schoolhouses for a nickel, got down to the point where his audience didn't even have an extra nickel to come see him, and he couldn't support himself.
"And he went back to Spray, back to working at the mill which he thought he had put behind him, and I imagine that must have been enormously depressing for him. I mean, what little I can glimmer about mill work, it's terrible, it's noisy, it's dirty, you're breathing link, you're working long hours for really s--- wages - this is after being in New York City and traveling around and being Charlie Poole! And he's back there. That had to have [broken] his spirit."
Yet when a Hollywood offer came to play in a movie, Poole "celebrated" with a bender that lasted 13 weeks and ended with his death.
"I mean, he wasn't together," Wainwright said. "Like a lot of people in show business he was a very self-destructive guy; he was a terrible, terrible drunk. He was a famous, mean, nasty, very self-destructive drunk. The idea of him getting his s--- together to go out to Hollywood and restore his career, I don't think a guy that's been living that hard life and that alcoholic life for that long, he probably couldn't have done that. He made moonshine! Alcohol was a big feature of his life. Everything I read and every indication, he was a real addict. In a way it was a logical conclusion - a sad conclusion, a tragic conclusion, but a logical conclusion."
"In a way that's the great thing about Poole - there's no easy answer," adds Connette. "There's no moral, there's no simple lesson. There's no end to the story, there really isn't. That's sort of what we all discover: We make of it what we will. You can't just sum it up or sew it up."
By CBS News.com producer David Morgan
Loudon Wainwright III won this year's Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for "High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project," Jan. 31, 2010.
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