His Roots are Showing

Pokey LaFarge finds the timelessness in early-20th-century American music

Sep 23, 2015 at 10:17 am
click to enlarge Pokey LaFarge
Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge is proud of his Midwestern heritage. The singer/songwriter is also a staunch baseball fan who grew up in Illinois, but now makes his home in Missouri.

“I’m trying to listen to the Cubs game,” LaFarge says at the beginning of our phone interview. “I think I might be the only St. Louisan trying to do that. You’re a Reds fan. You’re the team that hates the Cardinals almost as much as the Cubs hate the Cardinals.

“I was born and raised in Illinois, so I’m everything Chicago,” he continues. “But I’ve lived in St. Louis going on eight years now… I love baseball more than anything (and) St. Louis loves baseball more than anything.”

LaFarge passion for America’s pastime seems only to be surpassed by his passion for America’s vintage music. Somewhere along the way, a love for the music of the early 20th century sparked LaFarge’s creative energy. In less than a decade, the singer, songwriter and guitarist has risen to the top of the current retro-Roots music revival with a blend of early Jazz, Western Swing, Country Blues and more.

As with other events in world history, the years of The Great Depression spawned music that reflected those intense times. Since then, the music community has revisited that unique era on occasion, like during the peak Folk music revival years in the ’60s. During that time, there was the Jug Band scene, which featured early versions of The Grateful Dead and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, before both groups morphed into the more Rock-oriented incarnations that made them famous. In the 1970s, artists like Leon Redbone introduced (or reintroduced) audiences to Ragtime and vaudevillian Blues and Jazz. In the 1990s, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy brought their own twist to early-20th-century jams. Currently, artists like The Dustbowl Revival, Woody Pines, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Dom Flemons carry the early 20th century musical torch. LaFarge is also one of the leaders of the “new school.”

LaFarge’s music isn’t retro for the sake of it. It’s not a novelty act. He takes his music seriously and writes most of the songs that he records and performs in concert. If LaFarge and his band were alive and gigging in 1933, they would kick some real-time ass. A part of that authenticity centers on his talented troupe’s ability to improvise.

“A lot of my music is very much based on improvisation, coming from a traditional Jazz, Bluegrass and Old-Time background,” LaFarge says. “A lot of my music is based on strong grooves and melody, interplay with most of the musicians, listening to what is going on around you and working together and making it better. It’s not just one guy pounding the drums as hard as he can or trying to play the electric guitar as loud as you can. It’s about playing together. It’s about being a team.”

LaFarge has been supportive of other like-minded “teams” as his popularity has risen. He lent a hand to Cincinnati’s popular Folk trio The Tillers by bringing the group overseas to open for him on a European tour a couple of years ago. And last year, he put The Tillers on his Central Time Tour, which also included Flemons and other modern Americana acts.

“The Tillers don’t need a whole lot of help from me,” LaFarge says. “Good things are happening for them and I’m just so excited to see them continue. I’d sure as hell like to hear a new record from them, just because I love their songwriting and I love the way they sing together. They are going to be good for years to come. Hopefully we’ll get to do some more shows with them.”

When it comes to writing his own tunes, LaFarge’s way of finding his muse varies from song to song. Sometimes a song will come to him quickly, while other times he has to sit down and shape his compositions into form.

“It’s a craft,” LaFarge says. “Sometimes you do have to sit down and work at it. But I don’t think I ever really sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song.’ It has to start from somewhere. The inspiration has to be there. Sometimes it is gone in a flash. Other times, it comes out in waves. Other times, it comes out of nowhere and you finish the whole thing. Other times, it is just a verse, and two years later you finish it. It’s really never over. When you’re a songwriter, it is around the clock. You could wake up in the middle of the night and write songs. That has happened to many a songwriter, and that has happened to me. It could happen in the afternoon when you’re taking a nap. It could happen when you’re sitting on the can. It can happen at anytime, which is why I have to carry around a notebook.”

Last year, LaFarge signed with respected Roots music imprint Rounder Records. And earlier this year, he released his first album for the label, Something In The Water. Supporting the new release will keep LaFarge touring all around the globe, something he says only strengthens the influence of his Midwestern roots on him, both personally and musically.

“I first and foremost look at it this way — although I have traveled a lot in my life, and still continue to travel a lot in my life, they say that you get a better perspective on where you’re from the more you travel,” he says. “The fact that I still live (in the Midwest), the fact that I grew up here, it is a part of me and who I am. I can’t really change that. It’s all going to come out in my music, whether I want it to or not.”

POKEY LAFARGE plays Sunday in Washington Park as part of the 2015 MidPoint Music Festival.