Joyously Midwestern country blues
Pokey LaFarge grew up (as Andrew Heissler) in downstate Illinois. His grandfather was a member of the St. Louis Banjo Society, and he discovered the remnants of the classic blues and jazz styles that survived along the Mississippi River. He hitchhiked to the West Coast, got into Jack Kerouac, and toured on mandolin with the Hackensaw Boys, one of the forerunners of the current wave of punkish old-time country music. Returning to St. Louis, he put all these interests together in an uncommonly effective way, gathering a band called the South City Three and writing upbeat original songs modeled on old patterns.
Plenty of musicians specialize in note-perfect reproductions of early jazz, blues, old-time country, and the other genres that flourished around the rural Midwest between the world wars. But far fewer carry them forward in such a way that they seem contemporary and fun rather than scholarly and perfect. LaFarge plays archtop guitar and guitjo, a guitar-banjo hybrid, and he sings in a distinctively compressed high voice that recalls the high delicacy of the old bluesmen but hikes the volume a bit. Since 2006 he's recorded nine albums and accumulated quite a song bag.
It's the strength of LaFarge's songwriting and the overall imaginativeness of his repertory that has him gaining traction. Most of his songs are originals, and they update classic models without departing from them. LaFarge brags about living in the Central Time Zone, urges listeners to hit the road in "Pack It Up" because "life's a big ol' slot machine" (an image his models would never have chosen), and delivers a fine internally rhymed kiss-off: "Farewell, c'est la vie, so long, honeybee, goodbye." When he covers an old song, he either adds something to it or picks an unknown gem like "Chitlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County," a hilarious early country parody of the "St. James Infirmary" blues.
The Hot Club of Cowtown has some of the same contemporary energy, but even with them the
emphasis is more on jazz virtuosity. The closest comparison might be with Old Crow Medicine Show, with whose leader Ketch Secor LaFarge shares a bit of a swagger. (Secor produced Pokey's eponymously titled new album.) But LaFarge is much more rooted in joyous Midwestern blues and jazz than in Old Crow's drug- and alcohol-fueled country music. Relaxed and lively, he brings styles that almost automatically connote nostalgia into the modern world.
The Pokey LaFarge phenomenon has grown over most of a decade, and he recently signed with Jack White's Third Man label, a promising sign of things to come. Pokey LaFarge makes his Ark debut on Tuesday, July 30 (see Nightspots).
[Originally published in July, 2013.]