It seems like such a short time ago that you could run into Pokey LaFarge, aka Andrew Heissler, all over St. Louis, playing at the Tower Grove Farmers Market, or Off Broadway.
But, as with most good things, they can’t remain a secret forever, and 2012, was a big year for Pokey LaFarge. Our Adam Allington has more as part of our 'A Good Year 2012' series.
Pokey and his band, the South City Three (Ryan Koenig, Joey Glynn and Adam Hoskins), rang in New Year's 2012 playing in England on the legendary Jools Holland Hootenany on the BBC. They went on to tour across Europe in support of their album Middle of Everywhere.
LaFarge and the band also backed former White Stripes singer Jack White on a North America tour promoting White's first solo album, Blunderbuss. If all that wasn't enough, LaFarge also contributed a song to the hit HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
It was definitely our busiest year, a lot of flying,” LaFarge says. “We played a multitude of legendary venues…Cain’s Ballroom was probably the number one, that’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.”
“Of course we were at Red Rocks in Colorado, and we played Radio City Music Hall and a plethora of other venues supporting Jack White on his tour," LaFarge says. "We’re going to be finishing the year up at Nashville on New Year ’s Eve at the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. I couldn’t imagine a better way to cap the year, it’s been sort of overwhelming.”
Vintage sounds for modern hearts
While Pokey’s music is clearly leans heavily on the bluegrass and country sounds of his idols, guys like Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers or Bob Wills, his tunes don’t come off as imitations. Rather it they just seem to spill out of a completely natural American sensibility...and because he comes by it so honestly, the music itself feels just as fresh in 2013 as it was in 1932.
“I guess that’s the interesting balance that you hang in between,” notes LaFarge, who never tries to downplay his respect and appreciation for the music of times long past.
“With this old music, people say ‘you’re digging up this old music,’ but actually, it’s like classical music, where classical musicians play music that is hundreds of years old, it’s the same thing," LaFarge says. "These are new classic forms, American style, and I’m just carrying it on, I’m playing within a tradition.”
This question, about authenticity, is something that Pokey gets a lot. I mean, he’s 150 pound man, who wears Brylcreem in his hair, a newsboy hat and has a fondness for bow ties. But as far as Pokey the musician is concerned, the “package” as he calls is it, is just part of the process of connecting with his audience.
“I have a very clear-cut explanation for almost everything I do, why I dress the way I dress, why I play I play the music that I play,” LaFarge says.
“Of course it doesn’t seem that strange to me, but it does to some people. So you have to understand that, because ultimately I don’t want that to get in the way of you know, helping them through a tough time, or helping them have a good time, sing them a happy song when they want to feel happy, maybe sing them a sad song when they want to feel sad, because sometimes that can make you feel good too," LaFarge says. "And maybe even expose people to other forms of music.”
Comfortable with 'throwback' title
At the heart of LaFarge’s music is deep and fierce appreciation of craft, both his own, and a respect for so many musicians no longer fresh on the minds of the music-listening public.
“I’d rather be chalked off as a novelty, I’d rather be seen as a throwback,” admits LaFarge in between sips of black coffee.
“Even though I don’t think it’s [the music] is that at all," LaFarge says. "I don’t think I could have hung with some of those guys back in the day, that’s the greatness of some of the legends that have got us here to this time.”
Dipping from the folk well
In recent years, many roots-based bands like LaFarge, or Old Crow Medicine Show, or The Felice Brothers from upstate New York, have achieved a certain amount of notoriety that wasn’t there as recently five years ago. Still, when it comes to the appropriation of Americana by the pop marketplace, LaFarge is put off by the approach of mega stars like England’s Mumford and Sons or the Avett Brothers, here at home.
“For us folkies, and maybe this arrogant, but I think a lot of people are rubbed the wrong way by bands like Mumford and Sons,” LaFarge says. “I think they’re people who are somewhat exploiting certain forms of music rather than honing it in and evolving from it. I think it’s more like dipping in the well and snatching and grabbing.”
2013 will see the release of a new, as yet un-named Pokey album, currently in production with the help of Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show. For his part, the grinning guitar player, singer and banjo picker says this new release will be a bit of a break from his previous albums.
“This is a little bit of a culmination point,” LaFarge beams. “It’s a step into a new direction, of experimenting with a different sound. I have a lot horns on the new record and some strings…and there’s going to be a couple horn players traveling with us next year...I’m looking forward to it!”
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington
Exclusive Live Tracks
LaFarge granted St. Louis Public Radio permission to release a couple of exclusive, live, acoustic tracks here. You're also permitted to download - just click on the down arrow button in the players below.
("Little Devil" is performed by LaFarge here, written by Jason Jurzak of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns)