The Long Haul: Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III is celebrating 40 years of singing about lost love, aging, Thanksgiving dinners and everything else, including people misspelling his name. He’s also survived 40 years of running through airports with a "bad back and a bum knee" and had some thoughts on how he’s been able to make a living at it.

The first thing that comes to mind is I don’t have any overhead. There have been a few occasions where I’ve taken out bands but, by and large, I go out with a guitar.

Not only that, I go out without a road manager. When I was young and strong, not having one was a romantic way to go but now when I’m lugging the guitar through the airport I’m wondering if it’s time for one.

I’ve made 20-something records and one of them sold a lot, but the rest of them didn’t. Maybe someday they’ll make some cash but I’ll probably be long gone. So I’ve learned to make a living being a traveling performer. And the reason why it has some kind of constancy is I’ve kept my costs down. The venues I play aren’t amphitheatres by any stretch. On occasion I get to do a nice little theatre and, in the U.K., I can play some nice-sized halls but mostly I play in clubs like the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and the Towne Crier Café near Poughkeepsie.

I’ve been ripped off by club owners and promoters a couple of times but not often. And Mike Kappus and the people at Rosebud are very good about getting half the money upfront and chasing people who don’t come up with the second half. I probably shouldn’t be divulging this but I’m not that together. I show up, the guy hands me the money and hopefully it’s the right amount.

And selling merch is a second job. You talk about it from the stage and you go out and sit there. It can be fun but it’s also work. You have to be nice to people and that’s very hard. But for me, it’s a way to get my music out there because airplay is a total shot in the dark.

Then there’s my audience. It’s harder these days to get people in their 40s and 50s to go sit in a club. You couldn’t get me to do it! I might pay money to see somebody like Mose Allison but there aren’t many people I’d go out and see because I’m a cranky, middle-aged guy. Fortunately there is a group willing to come see me. I look out and see my lovely friends with their balding pates and I’m happy they took the time and spent the money to show up.

This is a good year for me. I wrote the music for the movie "Knocked Up" and it produced enough income that I can stay at home. I guess Chris Smither is right – you always have to look for other things without shedding whatever your core thing is. I’ve been trying to get an acting career going, which is a whole other set of frustrations, but if you get a job in a movie you don’t have to run through airports with a guitar. They pay you to wait around in a small trailer.

Now that I start to talk about this, I don’t think I have a philosophy! I don’t know what the hell I’ve been doing! I’ve just been writing songs and going out and figuring out a way to play them for people. Amazingly enough, I’ve still managed to get paid for it.

You know, you just keep on going and remind yourself that you’re getting to do what you wanted to do 40 years ago, which was be a performer and play the guitar. And people keep showing up, which is a miracle.