Pokey LaFarge will likely never shake loose his ties to Jack White, the loudmouthed rock star who pushed the old-time musician toward prominence by producing and issuing LaFarge's self-titled breakthrough back in 2013.
But the 31-year-old St. Louis singer jaunts through old-school country, Midwestern swing and other styles that enjoyed heydays long before Elvis first shook his hips. His output is more akin to Squirrel Nut Zippers than White's increasingly outsized blues-rock. Still, LaFarge is also propelled by the same ragged energy—and plagued by the same issues—that cling to his more famous and infamous friend.
Like White, LaFarge wobbles along the line between sincerity and artifice. He cops, for instance, a nasal warble that practically crackles with AM static. The title track for Something in the Water, his forthcoming seventh album and Rounder Records debut, starts with a smoking swing melody before blossoming into lush country-gospel. It's an idyllic pose, one that makes his ode to a woman who "does her makeup and hair/To cook fried chicken in her underwear" tough to take. Is he a post-modern musician posing as a primordial man?
We spoke to LaFarge about the snares of approaching traditional music in a modern context.
INDY: You talk a lot about living in St. Louis. Why is the idea of being from the Midwest so important?
POKEY LAFARGE: Some things in culture across the world have become more homogenized. That's why I want to retain my originality. I'm not trying to hold onto any sort of things that I think are negative. I'm trying to be aware of those things, as a reminder of where we came from. But there are great things that are a part of our culture that we should be proud of, or we should pass on.
Being from the Midwest, you're in what's considered "flyover territory," a place that's not necessarily glamorous. People from the West Coast and the East Coast, especially, look down on the Midwest. People don't even know what happens here. I feel like it's important as a person who has a platform and is traveling out there to let people know about it.
Dealing with traditional forms, how much of that is inspired by the music happening around you?
There's not really a lot of it in the region. More so, I feel the connection to this as American music. I've always been in search of a good song.
Some people seem to appreciate music such as yours as a museum piece. Do you fight against that?
You certainly don't want to be a novelty. This is traditional American music, and it's funny that it's called "traditional American music" when it really has never experienced the respectability of the mainstream. I would say the majority of our country has never listened to this music. I've always felt like the underdog playing this music. Maybe that's why it's lumped in with the whole Midwestern sentiment of being an underdog, of being a traditional American musician. When we're considered to be novelty or curio, you've got to rebel against that stuff, man. You've got to fight for respectability.
The way that I would separate myself from a lot of my peers playing this stuff is: Do they slow it down and think about it? Are they speaking in social commentary? Are they talking about what's happening today? Are they singing the sweet, sad song that really touches people? That's the mistake that people who play old music [make]. You forget to sing a sweet song or a sad song. It's all about being fun and goofy and how fast you can play. The people forget sometimes about the importance of a melody and the importance of the lyrics, which is what makes country music so relevant.
With songs like "Bowlegged Woman" and "Something in the Water," you portray women in a way that's pretty antiquated. How do you approach prickly blues and country tropes that might be offensive?
It's important not to take things out of context. In those two instances, I'm talking about my partner. She has bowlegs. [Laughs, hesitantly.] She accepts that about herself. It's not like it's a deformity. It's like if you have freckles. "Something in the Water," that song is also about her. Maybe some things in the song were a little played up.
People are going to have their opinions. I'm not really in the position to want to waste my time defending myself. One-hundred percent respect is being paid to females. I would like to think that I'm a consummate gentleman when in the presence of females—strangers or family or friends. I do think that people need to kind of relax and chill out and not be so politically correct. Take a deep breath and maybe take a drink of whiskey and have a good time. It's just a song, man.
Last year, Jack White got flack for "Three Women," which is a retread of an old blues song. Do you think that people would react differently if they had that historical context?
If people had more of a footing in old blues music, they may understand where I or a person like Jack White is coming from when singing songs. But is that going to make them any less offended? I don't know. It's a love song and not anything else.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Modern err"