Describing a science fiction novel he’s trying to write, Ned Oldham summarizes the plot by saying that it’s about “trying to figure out how people who go between parallel worlds do it, logistically.” Oldham knows a bit about parallel universes firsthand: he’s not only a writer, but also a teacher, actor, and longtime musician. Indeed, Oldham’s musical career is actually how he’s most well-known, playing in bands including Palace Brothers, The Anomoanon, and others over the past couple decades.
Oldham spent his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia then continued on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing. When he finished his studies in 1993, he left town for over a decade, only returning to Charlottesville in 2007. After settling back in, he formed the band Old Calf with accordionist Matty Metcalfe. Concurrently, he continued to work on solo musical efforts. Oldham explains, “The Anomoanon and Old Calf are bands with fairly stable membership, and it feels like fronting two bands is enough, so anything outside of that is ‘Ned Oldham.’”
His solo debut was a limited release in 2010 titled Let’s Go Out Tonight, followed by a 2014 single, Further Gone. When he plays shows as plain ol’ Ned Oldham, it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover which musicians will be by his side. For himself and his collaborators, music is a way to play and experiment, jamming and improvising with one another. Oldham adds, “I play music every day, you know, several hours a day. The payoff is purely musical, not financial.” The payoff is great for listeners as well, as Oldham strikes a balance between music that is melancholic and quietly joyful, delicately reverberating with voice and guitar.
He’s explored various genres extensively over the years, growing up punk, evolving into psychedelic, and eventually embracing a more rustic, folk-influenced sound. Originally from Louisville, Oldham spent his childhood listening to his family’s record collection alongside his two younger brothers, Paul and Will “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” Oldham. “We all just sort of liked music, but no one had focused genre tastes, so we all nurtured each other. We tried to listen to everything, read everything, and never get too narrow on the genre.” Arguably, it is precisely this eagerness to experiment that first prompted Oldham’s ability to travel between worlds.
In conversation, he likewise shifts between topics, peppering his sentences with recommendations for countless books and albums along the way. These are accompanied by the thoughtful consideration of one who has spent a wealth of time deeply reading and listening to each. On the day when I spoke with him at his home in Albemarle County, Oldham mentioned the ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass one minute, John Norman’s sci-fi classic, Gor, the next. References to Karl Knausgaard and Robert Graves found their way in as well.
His affinity for literature has also helped shape Oldham’s songs. “I just get sick of my voice. It’s refreshing to put someone else’s words in your mouth,” says Oldham, explaining his tendency to incorporate nursery rhymes into original arrangements. Indeed, a variety of his songs—including those on the latest Old Calf album, Borrow A Horse—take inspiration and even lyrics from texts including Mother Goose rhymes as well as poems by both François Villon and Robert Louis Stevenson. “In certain rhymes, the rhythm is so important, and the meter. That’s the nice thing for music: really clearly defined rhythm of the language.” Typically, Oldham attempts to alternate albums of completely original work with those that feature original arrangements with sourced lyrics.
Recently, Oldham has been working on something new with Jordan Perry, a multi-instrumentalist and member of the fellow Charlottesville group New Boss. Oldham recalls, “Jordan and I started working together shortly after my show with Nettles at The Southern a short while back.” Perry, who was also on the bill, struck up a conversation with Oldham. Though they originally met years ago in Harrisonburg, they didn’t begin playing together until after that run-in where they discovered a shared interest in British folk musician Shirley Collins. In fact, Collins holds a special significance for Oldham: he shares an ongoing correspondence with the musician and has played a concert with her at Southbank Centre in London. “We started rehearsing together on Tuesdays, just playing guitars. He’s really good,” says Oldham, “fun to play with. He’s open-minded, not stuck in one place musically.”
June 21 will be their second duo performance as they bring an acoustic session to the woods at the scenic Blue Ridge Swim Club. This unique venue hosts a spring-fed pool built in 1913 and has been hosting a summer concert series for the past five years. Though owner Todd Barnett ultimately selects the performers for the concert series, he says that, “the musicians who play at BRSC have mostly come to me and asked to play—they really like the setting and the community of the club.” It’s a place where tadpoles swim alongside guests and the surrounding gardens are just as important as the water – just about as far from a municipal swimming pool as you can get without actually jumping in a lake. Oldham has been performing at the swim club each summer since 2012 and has no plans to stop the annual ritual, saying “I like having audience members floating in large inner tubes.” It’s precisely in this type of setting that Oldham’s music can transport you to parallel worlds.
Ned Oldham and Jordan Perry will be performing at the Blue Ridge Swim Club on Sunday, June 21 at 6 p.m. Discover more of Oldham’s work at nedoldham.blogspot.com.