Known for his music combining bluegrass, country swing and early jazz, Pokey LaFarge recently talked with Pollstar about his career, working with Jack White and what the future might hold for him and his South City Three.
Aficionados of Americana or roots music will certainly feel right at home with LaFarge’s tunes. Often dressed in high-waisted trousers and sporting slicked-back hair, LaFarge not only plays music harkening back to the roaring ‘20s and dustbowl ’30s, but he looks the part. However, his onstage persona isn’t some show biz creation, but is as real as his music, a part of him that’s personal and professional.
Despite the “Pokey” moniker, LaFarge has been extra busy as of late, having appeared on Jack White’s Blunderbuss album. In May LaFarge’s own Middle Of Everywhere album took home the “Best Americana Album” honor at the 11th annual Independent Music Awards.
Since we’re catching you on the road, what do you use for transportation?
We have a 2002 Dodge Ram 350. She’s white and her name is Pearl.
Do you share in the driving?
Yeah, a lot of people help us out with that. We’re going to be starting with a tour manager about the end of this year.
So it’s a do-it-yourself operation.
As of now, yeah. We just brought on a merch guy a few months ago. We’re picky about people we bring onto the team and work with. You want to make sure it’s the right decision about the person you want to sustain a relationship with, spend that much time with. We’ve kept it pretty grassroots up to now.
You’ve been working on your sound since high school?
That’s right. Probably bluegrass first, that was the first genre that I really got head over heels with. Bill Monroe is what sort of did it for me. That’s when I actually started playing. I’d been listening to the old blues stuff before that. I love that old country but definitely bluegrass is what got me playing. That was the mandolin first.
Kids picking up instruments while in high school tend to play the rock and pop songs of the day yet you dived right into roots music and Americana. Did that make you stand out among your high school musician peers?
I think I probably always stood out, whether it’s because I talk loud and fast or I dress sort of eccentric and I’ve always had somewhat eccentric tastes. Maybe one could say I was unique. I think at the same time I always sought out ways to stand out from other folks. Some ways are better than others.
When someone meets you, say, on your day off, would the onstage persona still shine through?
Absolutely. There’s no false image we put out there. I think everybody’s probably got different things that could be misinterpreted or debated. There’s a little bit of acting that goes along with your song. No song is totally autobiographical.
I set out to talk, sing, play and dress the same way all the time. Have for years. You change here and there, evolve and everything like that. I am who I am, whatever that is.
Along with Bill Monroe, who else inspired you?
Jimmie Rogers, of course, one of my favorite singers. Tommy Duncan, Emmitt Miller … Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Lefty Frizzell … pretty long list, I guess.
You almost sound like a walking encyclopedia of old country, blues and bluegrass.
I’m definitely a student of it. I’ve always been very interested in history. A lot of what interests me I go 100 percent into and research and kind of want to know the ins and outs of it, just out of my own interest. But I think at the same time it makes me more of an educated performer and more of a dedicated musician. I’m a dedicated fan of music. You learn a lot of things through music. It’s the core of our culture.
Was working with Jack White a case of “teacher and student” with you teaching him about Americana and roots music?
I was never in that position with Jack. Jack commands a certain level of respect, obviously. No one’s going in there telling him what to do … it was more of a straight-up working relationship where we were just trying to hash out original songs. He never talks down to you, either. He’s a pretty down to earth fellow.
“I set out to talk, sing, play and dress the same way all the time. Have for years …. I am who I am, whatever that is.”
How did the collaboration with Jack White come about?
You heard of WSM, 650 AM out of Nashville, granddaddy of them [country music radio stations] all? They were playing some songs a couple of years ago around Thanksgiving time. They played one of our songs, “Sweet Potato Blues.” He heard that on the radio. I guess one of those “his people got a hold of my people” kind of things. He personally called and told me what he was interested in doing. That is, I was to make a single on his label [Third Man], come down to the studio, record a single and put it out, as he had been doing with some other artists as well. I think ours was one of the most successful singles. We went on to some other recordings with Jack, on his last record and we’ve been opening up some shows for him. It was a great opportunity for us.
How do you describe your music to someone who has never heard you or seen you perform?
I get it all the time and, honestly, I don’t have a very good answer. To someone who knows the music, you could say “western swing with less steel and fiddle” or “jazz without horns.” It’s kind of western swing in a lot of ways, at least early on. In the early 1930s it was mainly a jazz form except they were playing it on strings. Therefore jazz doesn’t necessarily be on horns. Of course, ragtime is filled with mainly piano music … I don’t know. To most people … genres are insignificant. To say that some artists are country artists, some artists are rock ’n’ roll, some artists are jazz, is really limiting. People say “you’re so young to play this music.” And I’m like, “Really? It’s American music.” All the legends were young when they did it. The music has never died.
I think [genres] were things used by record labels in order to pigeonhole people and make money off of them. You still see that today.
It’s tough because when you say here’s some of my favorite singers and they don’t really know them. I would say that it’s more often than not it’s [the music] usually pretty fast-paced, sometimes swinging, sometimes really fast, sometimes slow, sometimes old blues, western swing, sometimes some early country swing, sometimes some ballads. It’s really tough to say. I just say it’s kind of a mixture of a lot of early American music.
Have you done any soundtrack work?
Yeah. There’s quite a few things coming out this year and next, but I’m not able to talk about it. I wish I could. There was a local film that came out called “Brick” by Chance and Fortune. That was a movie about the history of the St. Louis brick industry. I had a couple of songs in that. The other stuff coming out is quite a bit bigger and we’re very excited about it.
You played Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve “Hootenanny” last year. Is that as much fun as it looks with all the musical guests gathered in the same soundstage?
Oh, yeah, you betcha … As Americans, unless you watch British TV or are really into British movies, you really don’t know half of the celebrities. But there’s still that buzz there.
What do you think the future holds for you and the band?
We’re going to be working on new songs, expanding the sound, bringing on one or two musicians, making the band bigger.
When you’re in the studio, is it very much a live session or are you and the other musicians laying down individual tracks?
It’s constantly changing because there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Talk to me at the end of the year when the album is done and there probably will be some more ideas that we’ve tried. So far it’s kind of been half live and the other half recording instrument tracks and overdubbing the vocals. I find I sing a lot better when I’ not playing. The rhythm is better, too, when I’m not singing. Sometimes, depending on a song, you can loose a little of the purity when there’s an overdub going on. When you’re playing a song, you match up with the music, but when you overdub it, you can sometimes overcompensate. Or under compensate.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world but no one asks you the right question?
I think a lot of people ask the same questions – Why did you start playing this music? Why do you dress as you do? – You got to give them the benefit of the doubt, that a lot of people are removed from the core of traditional music. You gotta sympathize with them on that. At least they’re seeing you, at least they enjoyed it. I think they’re trying to figure out why they like the music. They have no comparison. They don’t know why they like the music So you just have to let them know where you’re coming from.
I would say that you have to embrace your differences as a musician. People are really taking a shine to it. Whatever it is, it’s working, and people [are saying] it’s refreshing to hear it.
It’s unfortunate that people aren’t exposed to good American music. Especially acoustic music which you never hear in pop music these days, you’ll never hear on the radio anymore. I think that’s a shame.
There’s something in it for everyone. I want people to know this isn’t a dress-up contest. This isn’t a play, it’s not fake. I know where I came from. I’m a student of the music. I’m a good singer, player and writer. No matter what music [I might play], I’d be successful, I feel. I was born to play good, old-fashioned American music. It’s important to look past what people might think is a façade and listen to the lyrics and the quality of my band playing the songs and the quality of the arrangements. We all know a good song is a good song.
Left to right, rear: Adam Hoskins, Ryan Koenig and Joey Glynn. Front: Pokey LaFarge
Pokey LaFarge And The South City Three will spend the weekend at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Manitoba, Canada, July 6-8. Other stops include the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass., July 14; the Dawson City Music Festival in Canada’s Yukon Territories July 20-22 and the Calgary Folk Music Festival July 28-29.
In August, Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three open select shows for Jack White, including Morrison, Colo., at Red Rocks Amphitheatre Aug. 8; Seattle’s WaMu Theatre Aug. 14 and Portland, Ore., at the Rose Quarter Aug. 15.
LaFarge will also open for Old Crow Medicine Show in Charlottesville, Va., at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion Aug. 19. For more information, click here for the Pokey LaFarge And The South City Three website.