The Wainwright-McGarrigles: The Dysfunctional First Family of Folk-Pop

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Yep Roc Records / AP

Loudon Wainwright III

There's a telling moment on the DVD tucked inside Loudon Wainwright III's new box set, 40 Odd Years. Wainwright, the acerbic troubadour and patriarch, sits beside his teenage son, Rufus, who's not yet the flamboyant pop semi-star he would become. An interviewer asks Rufus how he feels about the scabrous songs his father has written about his mother, fellow musician Kate McGarrigle. Rufus squirms and says, "It does cause a little anxiety sometimes." His father erupts into laughter and adds, "And that's why I do it, folks — punishment!"

It's hard to conjure how challenging it must be to be a member of the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, the first family of reality folk-pop. Imagine if every member of your household was a singer, songwriter and musician. Then picture something painful happening — say, a divorce — and everybody writing songs about its aftermath, then singing those songs for all the world to hear. For the last four decades, the Wainwrights and McGarrigles — Loudon, Kate, and their two children, Rufus and Martha—have been doing just that. They're the modern dysfunctional family setting strife to music, as chronicled on 40 Odd Years and—arriving the same day—Tell My Sister, a three-disc set that collects the rueful, hearth-warm early work of McGarrigle and her older sister, Anna. (Kate McGarrigle died of single-cell sarcoma in January 2010, at age 63.)

Wainwright has long been shameless — and inspired — in the way he's used his partners, children, parents (including his father, a former Life writer) and one-night stands as material. The first disc of 40 Odd Years traces his life with McGarrigle: jealousy over her rising fame in "Saw Your Name in the Paper," exasperation over the arrival of their first baby in "Dilated to Meet You," envy over his son's breastfeeding in "Rufus Is a Tit Man." McGarrigle had her own ripostes: In "Blues in D," she reluctantly welcomes back her wayward husband; in the starkly vulnerable "Go Leave," she gives up. Anna chimed in with "Kitty Come Home," beckoning her sister back to their native Canada to escape her husband's "feeble love." Subsequent Wainwright albums included songs about the disastrous year Martha lived with him ("I'd Rather Be Lonely"), while McGarrigle's later "I Eat Dinner" was a devastating portrait of the middle-aged divorceé eating leftovers at home with only teenage Martha for company.

The kids have said their piece, too. On his own theatrical records, Rufus (who, like his sister, was raised by his mother) carved up his father in "Dinner at Eight," about a testy meal together; in his cover of "One Man Guy," he gave an alternative-lifestyle twist to his father's ode to solipsism. Martha, with her damaged-chanteuse delivery, laced into her father in "Bloody Mother F------ Asshole." Through this combined playlist, we live vicariously through unfaithful husband, spurned wife, or embittered children—we can roam freely through a pop bleak house.

Like most families, however, this one somehow manages to reconvene. 40 Odd Years includes a touching duet between Loudon and Martha on his "The End Has Begun," and this summer, Rufus will celebrate his own CD collection, House of Rufus, with a London show with his father. (McGarrigle will be the focus of two tribute concerts in New York City on May 12 and 13, featuring Norah Jones and Emmylou Harris as well as Anna, Rufus and Martha.) Now come the grandchildren: Martha gave birth to a baby boy, Arcangelo, just weeks before her mother's death, and in February, Rufus and his partner became same-sex parents to Lorca (whose biological mother just happens to be the daughter of Leonard Cohen). Assuming the musical torch is passed to another generation, the elders should prepare to get burned—while singing along, of course.