From central time to prime time, Pokey cuts through
Pokey LaFarge's new single, "Central Time," from his debut LP on Third Man Records, is a terrific, catchy ode to the Midwest which should blast through the muck of modern pop and make an instant impression for anyone who cares to listen.
And LaFarge's intent is just that--getting people to listen. It's a simple "sell" but not an easy one. But when people really do listen, they are well rewarded and the word is getting out that a Pokey LaFarge show is a sight to behold. With a crack band featuring upright bass, horns and woodwinds, archtop guitar, and Pokey's own understated solos on a vintage 1946 Epiphone Spartan, LaFarge's voice cuts through like few things out there in the music world, giving fans the very things that have been sadly lacking in so-called roots music: rhythm, melody, and a keen desire to connect.
Now if you think that you've seen and heard every thing Americana has to offer and that there are way too many groups drawing from early stringband shellac-era jazz and blues, your cynicism has some basis for fact. In 2000 when the O' Brother soundtrack broke, it seemed like every group overnight became Harry Smith Anthology zombies.
But LaFarge, like any artist with vision, went far deeper to the heart of what "stringband" music is really about: dance, the blues, and freedom of expression. Add to that a great sense of humor and a deadly serious compassion for both the audience and the art of entertaining and you've got an artist with a sight on far--but as yet--unseen horizons. For hardcore fans who think of the late 1920s and early 30s as the most exciting era of popular music (and many do), they all call LaFarge the "real thing." And for a younger generation who has no idea who Jimmie Rodgers or Milton Browne or Sleepy John Estes were, they don't care where LaFarge came from because their feet are too busy moving.
Epiphone.com caught up with Mr. LaFarge shortly after his debut on network television on the The Late Show with David Letterman.
Catch us up on the Pokey LaFarge story. Where are you from and how did music take hold of you?
I'm from Bloomington-Normal, IL. The blues and soon after bluegrass hit me. Then Western Swing, Traditional Jazz, Jug Band, Calypso and more. I knew I heard 'real music' when I heard Bob Wills, Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf, Milton Brown, Louis Armstrong, Emmett Miller. It became my education and music became a way of taking my writing to a different level.
Tell us about your Epiphone.
It's a 1946 Epiphone Spartan. I bought it off of a friend.
Archtops are confounding to some guitar players. On one hand they have tremendous cutting power but their tone is subtle.
I find arch tops to be the most complete guitar, besides a resophonic guitar. My archtop cuts, man. I'm still exploring the sound of it and I've since started tuning it a whole step down and that gives it a deeper tone.
Is your Epiphone your composing guitar?
That, a Hamm-tone arch top, (custom made) and my 1895 Lyon and Healy parlor.
You did a fair amount of busking about as a musician in your youth. What kind of a performer did you start out as?
I was a highly motivated one, always. While I was a confident one, I would also succumb to certain feelings of self-doubt. I was solo and there was so many feeling and ideas I wanted to express and that just couldn't happen until I got a band. I feel I am just within the last year enjoying my songs. I've travelled a lot and along with that many experiences to share. I feel the need to be more socially conscious and community representative in my songs. Those are thoughts that at times can be hard to put into a good song.
The industry--and particularly Americana--is in a constant identity crisis and there's a tendency to assume blues and country are throwback and not capable of being "modern." What are you hearing in that music?
Timelessness is what I'm working towards and time is the very thing it will take in order to solidify myself in the eyes of the world. I'll let the fads fade away, I'll let the generations evolve, and I'll evolve with them. But it's important for people to remember that any legendary musician has had one foot in his roots and one in the future.
Do you enjoy making albums? A lot of artists feel that's the best way to measure their growth.
I evolve with, or through my songs. For me songwriting should be natural. I let them tell me who I am. I try to write everyday, every chance I get. It is the most effective way to log incrementally, the steps you take as a person and a songwriter.
How do your records relate to your live performances? Does one inform the other?
While I, of course, hold my heroes in high regard and keep their stories in mind, it's important not to compare yourself to your heroes. My heroes have truly inspired me to be my own person.
As far as recording as opposed performing, there are definitely things you learn from the other. I try to remember that heightened sensation one gets when they're at their best live show--that connection with the crowd. I try and put that in my delivery when recording. It's sometimes difficult depending on the song and the recording situation.
There are lots of artists enchanted by string band blues and country music but there are not that many songwriters who find it fertile and challenging. What are they missing?
Good question. Perhaps they're not fertile or not challenging themselves. Perhaps they don't listen to enough variety or large amounts of early American music or modern classic style musicians and songwriters. You have to live the life you write about in your songs.
Tell me about the new album, Pokey LaFarge, on Third Man Records, which you co-produced. How did you choose a producer and what were you looking to do differently with this album?
Well, Ketch Secor and I go back some years. He knows me pretty well and my style. I knew he would challenge me and always help me deliver 'the message' in a song. I personally wanted to add more space, variety and layers to this album.
What's your favorite song on the new album?
"What the Rain Will Bring"
You've recently expanded your touring band to include horns and woodwinds. How does that expanded lineup influence your singing? There is more counterpoint to think about.
Yes, but it goes both ways. Everyone has to listen to each other to achieve counterpoints. I certainly have more melodic influence and that is certainly inspiring to sing from.
A life of constant touring can become a world of diminishing financial returns. But Milton Browne and Bob Wills were in the same boat: constantly hustling and moving from place to place. Do you ever see yourself coming home to St. Louis and taking yourself out of the rat race of the music biz?
Not really. Bob Wills made a lot of money but unfortunately made some poor investments that stressed his finances. I'm doing OK.
What are you writing now?
Counter attacks to the haters.
Ha, just staying motivated.
Congrats on the David Letterman show. How did that go?
Well, it seemed like it went pretty well. It sure did feel good. I believe that it exposed a lot of people to my music that perhaps would have otherwise been unaware.
How soon will you head back to the studio?
As soon as I find the time.