Pokey LaFarge: Modern Blues

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pokey lafarge

St. Louis singer-songwriter Pokey LaFarge has been traveling the country since he left his home in Central Illinois during his teen years.

From those humble beginnings, LaFarge has gone on to play the Newport Folk Festival, record “Lovesick Blues” for the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, and collaborate with Jack White. His new album Pokey LaFarge features his band The South City Three and is being released on White’s Third Man Records.

 “I feel like I’m just getting started,” he says of his career. “I’ve always wanted to have a big orchestra, like Bob Wills,” he adds, noting the recent addition of cornet and clarinet to his band.

LaFarge is on the West Coast leg of his spring tour, where he’s stuck on the L.A. freeway. He says he identifies with his Midwest roots, though his new album often finds him in different settings. “There’s a lot of personalities and traits in this country – that’s what makes it interesting,” he says.

His interest in the American experience started with an early love of history, especially sports (he’s a diehard Cubs fan, but the St. Louis Cardinals have also won him over.) “Ever since I can remember I was really into history,” he says. “I always had a knack for remembering statistics, dates, and locations.”

On the song “One Town At A Time,” LaFarge gives a geography lesson of sorts. “Kentucky in the springtime, summer in Tennessee / When it gets cold I’m gonna hit the road to New Orleans.” It’s a song about these towns, but perhaps about something more. LaFarge co-wrote the song with the album’s co-producer Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. “He helped me get down to what I really want to say.”  So what is LaFarge trying to say? “I’m saying that I’ve never denied who I am, who I’ve been and where I’m from. I have accepted that and harnessed that. That’s what I sing about. I want people to know that I’m proud about the place I’m from.”

Other themes that show up on Pokey LaFarge reflect traditional values and the desire to take things slow in a fast paced world. On “Let’s Get Lost,” LaFarge plays a jobless roustabout. “Let’s get lost, let your lazy mind take you away,” he sings, after describing an afternoon whiled away in the park.

The 28-year-old songwriter born Andrew Heissler speaks with a mix of old timey fastidious and Jazz Age hipness. But what resonates about LaFarge’s songs are their immediacy and timelessness. “I’ve always sung about traveling, but people chalk that off as a novelty,” he says.

After releasing two solo albums, LaFarge teamed up with a group of St. Louis musicians called The South City Three. The group released their debut record, Riverboat Soul, in 2010, followed by 2011’s Middle Of Everywhere, which garnered attention from NPR.  In 2011, LaFarge got together with Jack White, who produced a Third Man Records 45 on the song “Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time In Cheatham County.” White heard LaFarge on Nashville’s AM country radio station WSM on Thanksgiving Day 2010. They played LaFarge’s “Sweet Potato Blues,” right after Bob Wills’ “Tater Pie,” and White called him up.

LaFarge’s new self-titled album adds richer arrangements and some of his best songwriting. Certain songs depict life as a working stiff. “Day After Day” follows a mundane 9 to 5 job spent “hanging around the water cooler,” while LaFarge dreams of more worldly things. “I should be out chasing girls or sitting at home learning violin / Doing all those other things I said I’d do eventually.”

There are plenty of upbeat and whimsical songs too. “I’m getting by on central time,” LaFarge sings on the album’s first track, while the tender courting song “Kentucky Mae” is juxtaposed with the lusty blues of “Bowlegged Woman.”

“What the Rain Will Bring,” which features singer Caitlin Rose on harmony vocals, mixes gypsy swing with a New Orleans-flavored clarinet. “Storm’s coming, mama knows / By the pain down in her bones,” LaFarge sings, evoking a distinctive 1920s ambience.

“City Summer Blues,” also co-written with Secor, is a city tale real and imagined. Gunshots and sirens go hand in hand with swimming pools and wine. In the end, LaFarge decides it’s time to hit the road again: “That’s no way to treat a lady, you gotta get her out of town come summertime.”

Pokey LaFarge is full of sock rhythms, slippery lap steel lines, and traveling songs – sure signifiers of a bygone era. But don’t let that fool you. These are modern blues.