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Loudon Wainwright Surprised By The Man Who Discovered Him

January 22, 2006

Everyone who went to the Kent Stage Friday night knew Loudon Wainwright's name. (Of course they did; they bought a ticket to see him.) They didn't know the name Steve Popovich until Loudon mentioned him on stage toward the end of his set. Before the show Popovich surprised Loudon and they went out to dinner. Why is this significant? It was Steve Popovich, president of Polygram Records, who gave Loudon his first break almost 40 years ago.

Of all the songs Loudon would go on to write, Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road fascinated Popovich and he tested the song in Little Rock, Arkansas. He personally convinced programmers at various stations to play it, and made sure the album was in every record store. If the song did well in one market, felt Steve, then the rest of the country would follow suit. The song was a hit and Loudon had a career. Loudon told us: "I remind Rufus (his son) that I was #1 in Little Rock Arkansas for 5 weeks!"

Loudon was captivating on stage and I was thrilled to introduce him. I told him that our audience recognized him more for songs like The Picture. When he sings that song about seeing a photo with his sister in their childhood, he captures brother-sister relationships for all of us. The room falls silent, as it did once again, and the crowd was suddenly eager to hear everything. He played several songs off his new album Here Comes the Choppers, including one about each of his grandparents. Perhaps the best of all was Leaving You, where he openly criticizes selfish people who give up on their families. Loudon notices a bad trait in the song's main character early on, which carries over into adulthood. The song is disturbing, and unfortunately all too real for many of us.

These are examples of songs that ought to make history. To be fair, however,
without the early success of Dead Skunk we may not have ever heard them.

We can thank Steve Popovich for that.

It was so much fun to listen to Steve after the show. He told me how Columbia let Johnny Cash go years back, thinking that Cash needed to be replaced by 'new country': "That was crazy. Someone like Johnny Cash would never be finished. I signed him the next day." Popovich also took Frankie Yankovich, the polka hero, to Youngstown to record his first album, also a hit. Musical styles didn't matter. What Steve saw was potential. He also uncovered the rock star Meat Loaf.

What a treat. I met Loudon and the man who brought him to the attention of the world. After the concert and all the CD signings, the last person left and it was just the three of us. I felt like a fly on the wall. Some of the stories I can't share here, but I will tell you this. The first thing Steve said to me that night was this: "You're the guy with Folk Alley aren't you? Tell me about it."

Heck, maybe we're next...

Jim Blum

Posted by Jim Blum at January 22, 2006 12:55 PM


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