Pokey LaFarge Laments Labels, Defends America’s Heartland
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.
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