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But if it weren’t for a dead skunk lying in the middle of the road, the public’s perception of him might be wholly different.
“It was on the radio a lot,” Wainwright says by phone from his home in New York City about his smash 1972 hit “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” and that adds, politely, “But it was a long time ago. Certainly, for some people, that’s fine, they can think of me any way they want to think of me. I’ve also done acting. And I won a Grammy. I’ve had songs recorded by Johnny Cash, Mose Allison and Earl Scruggs. So many other things that have happened since then. For people that are stuck back in 1972 …”
A lot has happened over the past 44 years. This New York suburbs-raised son of a mother who taught yoga and a namesake father who worked as an editor and columnist for Life magazine has kept his foot on the creative gas, never letting up on a folksy, mocking style that always seems to point back at himself without really letting on at how annoyed at the rest of the world he can really get.
Three of his more than 20 albums have been nominated for Grammy Awards: “I’m Alright” in 1985 and “More Love Songs” the following year, and in 2010, Wainwright took home the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”
Wainwright earned his SAG credentials early on in the ’70s, when he played the Singing Surgeon on TV’s “M*A*S*H,” then moved on with small parts in such big-screen films as “The Aviator,” “Big Fish,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “28 Days.”
Of the parallel careers, Wainwright prefers living the part of a musician in real life.
“In a movie, you do (the part), then it’s over for you and the director puts it together,” he says. “I was in a movie called ‘Jacknife,’ and I had a whole scene with Robert De Niro, and they cut it. That’s part of being an actor: You’re not in control.”
As a musician, Wainwright says, he does what he wants.
“I’m in the driver’s seat when I’m up on stage with my guitar,” he says. “I think the songs that I write, most of the time, I’m thinking what I’m going to use in a show. In my show, there is humor, and so I am happy to write about something that strikes me as being amusing. I’ve always done that.”
Not always. After the death of his mother in 1997, Wainwright’s writing took a serious turn when he wrote in his own liner notes that he fell into a period of such deep depression that he believed he could never write again.
But Wainwright returned in 2001 with the soul-baring “Last Man on Earth.” In 2006, he and fellow musician Joe Henry composed the music to the film “Knocked Up,” and Wainwright appeared in the film as an obstetrician. He also went on to compose the music for the theater production of “Lucky You” in 2008, then followed his 2010 Grammy Award with the studio album “Older Than My Old Man Now” in 2012.
Now, Wainwright has a new record waiting in the wings. Produced with friend and fellow songwriter David Mansfield, “Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet)” is the result of three years of “getting songs for an album then working with people that I want to work with,” Wainwright says.
The new material pays homage to his father, who died in 1988.
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“I wanted to be a performer and an entertainer, and a writer, and an actor,” Wainwright says. “There’s an aspect of my show now that’s different, in that I’m performing some of my dad’s work; he was a journalist for life. I have a show where I’m his surviving twin, and I’m combining some of his writing with my songs. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, plus it will theatricalize my show a little more.”
Maybe now that dead skunk in the middle of the road can be put to rest. Or, at least take a back seat to the next creature Wainwright plans to tackle with his guitar.
“I’ve just written a song about Donald Trump,” he says but ducks a question about his personal political leanings. “I’m going to surprise you.”