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Legendary Singer Will Oldham Joins Eighth Blackbird for a Minimalist Classic Set in Attica Prison

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The power is out a Will Oldham’s place in Louisville, Kentucky — just like it is at my house in Richmond. On either end of the phone line, we’re cold.

“We didn’t get the winter storm here either, but it’s freezing,” Oldham says. “Woke up and couldn’t even make coffee. So we just left.”

A singer and songwriter who records under the name Bonnie Prince Billy, Oldham is known for his restless artistic nature and his emotive and often theatrical singing. He makes albums as if they were little movies with different casts and genres.

This makes sense considering he’s also an in-demand film actor who’s worked with such wide-ranging directors as John Sayles (“Matewan”), Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”) and Rick Alverson of Richmond (“New Jerusalem”).

Next week, Oldham is coming to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to perform a rare show with Grammy-winning contemporary classical group, Eighth Blackbird, which is based in Chicago but has been ensemble-in-residence at the University of Richmond since 2004.

Eighth Blackbird with Will Oldham: "One With The Birds" from Eighth Blackbird on Vimeo.

He will be reading the words of Sam Melville, a ’60s radical who bombed government buildings in New York and was one of the organizers behind the Attica prison riots of 1970, where he was killed by state police.

The minimalist piece, titled “Coming Together,” was written by American composer Frederic Rzewski, and involves a brief text consisting of Melville’s prison letter excerpts set to a repetitive, steadily building sequence of music.

Oldham has performed the work several times and says the audiences and spaces are always different. He feels like he’s “re-entering a galaxy” when working with Eighth Blackbird, he says.

“This is really like nothing else I’ve done before,” he says. “The way the text relates to the music. It isn’t melodically performed, or sung, although I’m using my voice in ways I use it when I’m singing.”

He didn’t delve too deeply into Melville’s personal history in preparation, as he might for a film role, he says. But repeating the words means that each time he reads the text — which at one point compares prison life with a lovers’ relationship — it’s always surprising and challenging.

A few weeks ago, Oldham performed at a men’s maximum-security state prison in central Missouri, which he believes will still be on his mind in the setting of this city’s fine arts museum.

The first half of the program includes Eighth Blackbird performing Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang’s “Learn to Fly” and “Murder Ballads” from Bryce Dessner of the National. The second half with Oldham includes “Coming Together” and several arrangements of Oldham’s own songs. “I usually don’t know until a couple hours before what we’re doing,” he says.

Lisa Kaplan, founding pianist of Eighth Blackbird, says that it’s been a pleasure performing with Oldham because he takes risks. “Once recently, we were rehearsing a new tune with him and I said ‘Is that the way you usually do it in this spot?’ and he just said, ‘there is no usual way.’ That about sums Will up.”

She adds that the group would love to record their unique arrangements of his songs — they have about five worked out — and she’s been meaning to talk to him about a possible vinyl release.

When asked about his film work with Richmond director Alverson, Oldham seems unsure of any future collaboration. The previous film project didn’t work out as planned, he says.

“[Alverson] and his collaborator, Colm O’Leary, wanted to shoot a feature that kind of addressed bullshit in the art world and how it relates to those who live outside of the art world,” Oldham says. “And they wanted to shoot it in four days in a cabin in Vermont. We went and did that and it was super challenging. In the end, they felt they didn’t have enough footage for a feature so I guess they shelved it. I think I ended up the real winner there, because a woman who played my wife ultimately introduced me to the woman who became my real wife [in November].”

Although he loved the Richmond shoot and prep for Alverson’s 2011 film, “New Jerusalem,” he says, he had problems with the editing that affected the story and characters.

“Because of the amount of work, it felt a little sabotage-y,” he says. “The dialogue and all the characters were completely improvised. That takes a lot of work on the part of an actor. ... So that’s when we had a conversation that got intense.”

But Oldham says it’s “all good” today, and he was pleased to run into Alverson at Sundance a month ago, where the filmmaker was raising money for a period piece.

As far as his future music, the singer says he just announced a Bonnie Prince Billy album of Merle Haggard covers called “Best Troubadour.” Oldham, who previously recorded one of his own songs with Johnny Cash, says he didn’t want it to sound like a Merle cover band.

“We wanted to pay specific attention to aspects of his artistry, his devotion to song and that he never stopped digging deeper into his own abilities as a songwriter right to the very end,” he says. “Most of his songs I would have no business even trying to sing. So it was trying to find songs I could bring something to.”

I wondered if he ever got into the work of folksinger Michael Hurley, who used to live in Richmond. “Of course. Yeah, he’s a real hero,” he says. “Seeing him singing and smiling makes me think I can get through this life doing what I do.”

Oldham says one of the greatest images he’s ever seen was a picture of Haggard and Hurley together at a music fest in Nelsonville, Ohio.

“It’s like that picture of Nixon and Elvis,” he says. “You see these two people together and it’s like someone from Marvel and D.C. universes: They belong completely together but you never thought you’d see it.”

“It’s like when Danzig worked with Roy Orbison,” he continues. “The Merle-Hurley photo is just beautiful. They look like they just stepped down from Mt. Olympus.” S

Modlin Center for the Arts presents Will Oldham with Eighth Blackbird on Wednesday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m., at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theater. Tickets cost $10-$28. modlin.richmond.edu.

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