Music » Music Features

Wanderlust King

Pokey LaFarge takes his love of classic American styles on the road.



Pokey LaFarge has big news, but he can't share it. In a few short weeks, the St. Louis musician will begin recording his third album with his backing band, the South City Three, no doubt exploring his obsession with pre-war blues, jazz, and swing. "Officially, I'm not able to say who the producer of the album is," he says, with no little excitement animating his Midwestern drawl. "But it's a good name, and it's a good friend of mine." He does offer one hint: It's not Jack White, with whom LaFarge recorded a single for the former White Stripe's Third Man label. "There's more things coming up with Jack in the future, but I can't talk about that either."

LaFarge is mum on many matters. There's the issue of his real name, which he has so far refused to divulge to the press. LaFarge is an adopted surname, Pokey a childhood nickname earned for taking his own sweet time all the time. What his mother calls him seems to be largely irrelevant to his fans, as though LaFarge's offstage identity has been subsumed by his stage persona. Given his proclivities for early-20th-century musical and literary forms, it's not hard to place him squarely in the great American tradition of reinvention, taking advantage of the country's generosity toward second chances to define himself solely on his own terms. In that regard, he comes off like Jay Gatsby fronting the Texas Playboys, Horatio Alger pulling himself up by the cowboy bootstraps.

For most of his life, the man who would be Pokey wanted to be a writer, but then he heard Bill Monroe and found a new calling. A quick-fingered picker and thick-drawled singer, he's a student of pre-rock American styles, and the music he makes with the South City Three combines the spry bluegrass of Monroe, the yodeling country of Jimmie Rodgers, the playful western swing of Bob Wills, and some of the less problematic elements of Emmett Miller's minstrelsy. Synthesis is the emphasis.

"There's no reason you should pin yourself to a genre and say that blues is this or country is that," LaFarge says. "The only reason people even came up with a genre was so record labels could exploit people and make money. The best musicians throughout time are the ones who've defied categorization in any kind of art — writing, painting, especially music. So I choose to follow those innovators, those people who came before us and did some amazing things."

Just don't call it a revival. LaFarge is not simply re-creating old styles or even translating them to modern times. Even the very ideas seem to offend him on some existential level. "If people say it's retro, I say this music didn't go anywhere," he declares. "Would you say a classical musician is retro? Hell, no. Classical music has been played for hundreds of years, and it's still being played. America invented jazz. We invented country music. We invented rock-and-roll. These things have not died. They just used to be more popular."

Nevertheless, LaFarge remains a man out of time. While there are many bands plumbing these same influences — from Trampled by Turtles to Midtown Dickens to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who appear to have been way ahead of their time — few throw themselves into the past with as much abandon as LaFarge. Onstage, he wears vintage clothes, greases his hair, and adopts a roustabout pose. It'd be Great Depression cosplay if his music weren't so witty, inventive, and gregarious. Unlike other bands crammed under the Americana rubric, LaFarge and the South City Three emphasize nuanced jazz rhythms and cool-headed technical proficiency. His albums preclude any rock influence, which places him closer to history-steeped acts like Frank Fairfield and the Carolina Chocolate Drops than to groups like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, whom LaFarge dismisses as "rock bands on acoustic strings."

"We're not anywhere close to indie folk," he says, "nor will we ever be."

While he never draws too fine a parallel between the Dust Bowl and the housing bubble, LaFarge understands that jazz, swing, and even blues — the bedrock of rock — originated as a means to bring people together. "Most music since the beginning of time is a social thing," he explains, differentiating himself from introverted indie bands and isolated bedroom auteurs. "I don't know how you could be a straight studio band. Music is meant to be played for people."

And playing for people is LaFarge's main mission. He and the South City Three tour America and Europe almost constantly, playing more than 200 shows a year. Vintage clothes and vintage sounds aside, it's possible LaFarge became a musician to accommodate his wanderlust. "I had a quest to travel at a young age, and it hasn't worn off. I get to see a lot to things and pass my music on to people all across the world," LaFarge says. "Traveling has made me in some ways more proud of mankind in general and even more specifically proud of where I come from. If you want to say America is the greatest country in the world — and I would agree — it's because of our music and all the things that we have created."

Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three
with the Dirt Daubers
Hi-Tone Café
Sunday, February 19th, 8 p.m.; $7

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