High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project is the 20th studio album by Americansinger-songwriterLoudon Wainwright III. The album, a double-CD released on August 18, 2009 on 2nd Story Sound, pays tribute to singer and banjo picker Charlie Poole (1892–1931). It features 30 tracks, including new versions of songs made popular by Poole from 1925 through 1930, as well as original songs on Poole's turbulent life by Wainwright and producer Dick Connette.
In the 70-page booklet that accompanies the album, Wainwright recalls having first heard of Poole in the early 1970s through folksinger Patrick Sky. He was at Sky's home in Rhode Island, and Sky played the Poole novelty song "Awful Hungry Hash House". Wainwright found it hilarious, and over the next few years learned other songs by the North Carolina picker. He also became intrigued by stories of Poole's life - his days as a mill worker, his stint as a semi-pro baseball player, his success as one of country music's first stars, and the alcoholism that led to his early death.
Wainwright admits to identifying with Poole, whom he describes as a "rambling, hard-drinking, crazy Southern showman." He initially thought of writing a biographical film on Poole's life and fantasized about playing the lead part, but it never came to anything. Instead, some three decades later, he and Connette collaborated in recording what Wainwright refers to as "a sonic bio-pic of sorts."
Connette conceived the idea for the album after giving Wainwright a copy of the three-CD collection Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (Columbia, 2005). He also bought a copy for himself, and in listening to it, he says he thought about "how it was that Loudon particularly related to Poole - the humor, the clarity, the simplicity, the wise guy attitude, and, occasionally, an unapologetic emotional sincerity." In December 2007, he proposed recording songs that Poole had recorded, along with writing new songs on the artist's life and times. After the success of a demo Wainwright recorded of the "The Deal", a traditional song performed by Poole that was a huge hit in 1925 (it sold 100,000 copies at a time when there were only 600,000 phonograph players in existence), Connette says, "I knew we were onto something." Shortly afterwards, Wainwright wrote what was to become the album's title track, "High Wide & Handsome". With that, the project started to come together.
Besides wanting to pay tribute to Poole, Wainwright and Connette had another purpose in creating High Wide & Handsome. Despite his significant contributions to the development of country music - Poole had already had several hits before country greats Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family recorded their first songs in 1927 - he has yet to be named to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wainwright and Connette hope their album will help win Poole induction into the Hall and earn him the recognition they believe he deserves. Taking this a step further, in early August 2009, just before High Wide & Handsome's release, Wainwright and two of the musicians featured on the album, David Mansfield and Chaim Tannenbaum, performed a set of material from the album in a concert at the Hall of Fame's Ford Theater.