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Pokey LaFarge Laments Labels, Defends America’s Heartland

Out with a new album, ‘Something in the Water,’ the singer continues touring to liven spirits and denounce the idea that all Americans are “fat and ignorant”

Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge embraces an eclectic, throwback sound on new album 'Something in the Water.'

Philip Ryalls/Redferns

A Pokey LaFarge concert is something akin to time travel.

It’s not because the band and most of the audience wear vintage clothing — that’s pretty common these days — nor because of the throwback Americana lyrics. As LaFarge himself points out, everyone from Sharon Jones to Sturgill Simpson sings songs just as traditionally based as his. The time travel comes from LaFarge’s musical mix of western swing, traditional country, ragtime and jazz, wrapped around lyrics that are nothing short of short stories from a Midwestern perspective. The combination evokes a tangible spirit that moves strangers to smile at each other, hold doors and scoot in chairs to make room for those who dance with abandon as LaFarge and his band perform. Even though fans know that once they leave the show they’ll revert to their horn-honking, finger-flicking urban warrior personas, the time spent with LaFarge is a trip to a kinder, gentler — let’s say Midwestern — way of life.

The 12 tracks on the St. Louis-based LaFarge’s April 7th release, Something in the Water, offers his latest reflections on contemporary life in middle America on songs such as “Knocking the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight” and “Cairo, Illinois.” The entire record aims to evoke the same affable spirit in its listeners as in those who hear the music live.

Just before starting his tour in support of the album, LaFarge spoke to Rolling Stone Country about the new music, why he can’t stand being labeled “retro” and his distress over America becoming “just a brand.”

As eclectic as your sound is, are you the kind of guy who gets ticked off by genre labels?
I never want my music to be categorized. Music shouldn’t be categorized except as good or not. Working on this album strengthened my resolve to never want to be categorized. People want to put labels on things. They say “retro” because they want to write me off. Then I see pop stars that have started to dress in vintage clothing, vests and fedoras. . . Now it’s cool because a pop star did it. It’s funny how the juxtapositions give you relevance, I have to say I haven’t ignored that. I have worked with that and kind of taken some of that on myself. We use that as a theme in this record, a juxtaposition. [Producer Jimmy Sutton and I] both knew we are old souls, we both knew we have encyclopedic knowledge of older music. Hopefully that goes a long way in the pursuit of relevancy.

Did you use a lot of vintage equipment recording this album?
People have to understand there are certain things throughout history that you can’t really replicate. A Studebaker from the Twenties, in a lot of people’s minds, looks way cooler and way different than a Volvo. However, in practical terms a Twenties’ Studebaker doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive across the country. You have it in the driveway and maybe drive it around the neighborhood, but that’s about it. . . People at certain times make things that are the utmost quality. When you consider tape, mics and the rooms’ variations, it’s important to accept the fact of those variations. A Victrola and laptop each have their own purpose. I am not saying everything has to be vintage or nothing can be new. I use what is best for a specific purpose. It’s funny the labels you get on things — it also gets people talking.

Some songwriters write just enough songs for an album and others have a vast storehouse. Which are you?
I am that latter kind of songwriter. I write so much and I write so many different types of songs, it helps to have a producer. It has taken me years to realize that. The first producer I ever worked with was Jack White, and I only worked with Jack on a 45. That was two songs and just for a day. I wasn’t really worried about working on a sound and digging in for months at a time. That had a bigger effect on me and as a musician as a whole. The first producer I ever worked with on an album was Ketch Secor [of Old Crow Medicine Show]. That was a bit of a learning process, but it wasn’t until I worked with Jimmy [Sutton] that I realized how important a producer is.

It’s funny the everyday items you never hear mentioned in lyrics, like bobby pins and wishing wells.
I was interested in a lot of things as a kid, and as I get older more people are casting an eye on classic Americana of all kinds. Yet some people want to categorize me as a “cast off.” I don’t see how it is different for me to have an older music sound and vintage dress when you have the Old Crows, Sturgill Simpson, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones and all these people doing interesting things [reminiscent of] 50 years ago. They are quite successful. I wonder if they get the same questions.

It’s part of a deeper reason, why people are interested in it. The world that changes so quickly, I don’t think we have an identity in America anymore. I don’t know if we ever will again. Things move so fast and change so quickly. Some things you look at and say, “That’s Forties or Fifties,” but what can you say is 2015? You can’t. In two weeks, there will be something completely new. Two years from now we might not even use cell phones. Hence the hipster clothing, barbering is coming back, butchering is coming back, American-made clothing is coming back because people want something tangible.

I just saw a sign in a barbershop window for flat tops.
Flat tops? I wouldn’t be surprised if flat tops come back. My mother would be terrified. I wouldn’t get one. But people are just trying to find ways to express themselves. Something that feels real.

Computers don’t have souls, cell phones don’t have souls. Records have souls. Clothes have souls. That’s what people want. If you ask, most people want things with a soul.

So you were a Midwestern kid who hitchhiked all over the country and ended up with a recording contract and an incredible knowledge and respect for American history. How did the past pique your interest so much?
My knowledge is a direct byproduct of the life that I led. It has nothing to do with organized academia, but things that I have read and done on my own. I did my own good bit of rejecting authority as a youth, and I have some regrets. I wish my grandfather could see me today — the influence my grandfathers had on me has manifested more since they passed away. Funny, when things are taken away from you, nostalgia sets in and sort of turns your eye toward that thing.

Some people out there will laugh, but to me the more American I have become, the more conscious I have become. Unfortunately people would have negative connotations of that. I think America is a joke at this point. To most people it is just a brand. I travel around the world and see people with American flags on their purses and hats, and wearing Guns N’ Roses shirts. America, to most people, is Hollywood and Washington, D.C., and there’s nothing else. That is what concerns me. When I travel around and talk to people, they are scared of America. They think we are all fat and ignorant. It’s unbelievable to realize I have this platform. I want to change attitudes and nowhere is that [more important] than in my own backyard. My Midwestern resolve has really strengthened in the past five years.

The Rust Belt has changed, now that the country is deindustrialized and unions are busted up. It’s all happening here in the Midwest. It’s a newer kind of America now, the bread basket. It’s not the sexiest place to a lot of people, but we are a pretty important place in the grand scheme of things. I try to make people realize that. I think Midwesterners eat too much humble pie.

When your show ends, people may jump back in their cars and drive like lunatics, cutting each other off. But during the show, they are friendlier, just enjoying the music and dancing. It’s like a trip to the Midwest in a way.
That’s an interesting point. Talking to people like yourself about your own interpretation of a show has taught me something. Perhaps next time someone says “time travel’ we can say that first of all, it’s something different they notice in the crowd. And the experience of the show is different, the feeling people get from the music, which is a classic nature. That’s pretty obscure these days. I get it. It’s not just a hokey retro time-travel thing.

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