“People think, with me, that it’s a dress-up contest or a history project,” says dapper roots musician (and former, albeit briefly, Asheville resident) Pokey LaFarge. “I just choose to look nice. When I dress nice I feel good and hopefully that passes on to other people.”
In the instance that LaFarge’s sharp suit, shined shoes and tilted fedora aren’t helping, they’re certainly not hurting: His tour for new self-titled album, just released on Jack White’s Third Man Records label, includes a performance on World Café and an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. That will be the American TV debut for LaFarge and his band.
The tour also brings the group — recently upgraded from a quartet to a six piece (“I’m getting closer to my orchestra,” LaFarge says) — to The Grey Eagle. But visiting Asheville, for the musician, isn’t exactly a return to happy times. He remembers living in a “sharecropper house in West Asheville,” doing odd jobs and busking through a chilly winter. “It was tight and it was a little rough,” he says.
LaFarge had been living in Kentucky but headed to Western N.C. to study fiddle with Adam Tanner of The Twilite Broadcasters. “But as soon as I got to Asheville, I got into guitar,” he says. “I’d been writing songs since I was a kid, but I really started to find my voice and my direction.” That’s the sound he’s since coined “riverboat soul.”
A couple of days before the Fourth of July, LaFarge met Ryan Koenig and Joey Glynn who (with Adam Hoskins) would form backing band, The South City Three. They all settled in St. Louis about five years ago, a city about which the bandleader says, “I’m part of something here.”
That relationship to locale is apparent on the new album’s domain-centric tracks like "Home Away From Home" and "Kentucky Mae”; but most specifically on “Central Time” which, with lyrics like, "I won't worry if the world don't like me, I won't let it waste my time,” could pass as LaFarge’s personal anthem.
“I feel a strong sense of place because of the fact that I traveled so much in my life,” he says. “It makes you appreciate what you have back home.” He calls St. Louis an “underdog city in an underdog region of the country” and waxes proud American about the burgeoning community-oriented movements in his burg. And, while the musicians says he’s there to stay, there is one other city that’s tempted him to move: Nashville.
The Tennessee hub is not just home to LaFarge’s latest record, it’s also, in many ways, the jumping-off point for his career. It was Nashville’s famed country music station WSM (broadcasting since 1925 and home of the Grand Ole Opry show) that played a Pokey LaFarge song.
Rocker/producer Jack White heard it and invited LaFarge and the South City Three to record a seven-inch of “Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County” at Third Man Records. The band opened a number of dates for White and his group, The Raconteurs and contributed to the track "I Guess I Should Go to Sleep," on White’s Blunderbuss. When it came time to record his self-titled album, LaFarge says that going with Third Man was an easy decision.
To listen to Pokey LaFarge, with its nods to ragtime, brassy hits of cornet, expertly picked guitar solos and the band leader’s folksy “aw shucks” drawl, neither Jack White rock nor Nashville country are the immediate associations. But LaFarge says his goal is to have a versatile band that can play any kind of music. “With my limited instrumentation before, we did the best that we could with what we had,” he says. “Now that we have horns, people are like, ‘I like this new direction you’re going in. It’s so jazzy.’” In fact, it’s the same sort of music the band has been playing for years, the musician explains.
“People need certain instruments to spell it out for them,” LaFarge adds. “It’s important to not get style and visuals wrapped up too much with the music.”
But the band leader is willing to be patient. First, he says, what he’s doing is about quality‚ be it music or clothes or whiskey. He’s not out to “perpetuate mass-market crap.” And secondly, he’s not worried about trend.
“We’re in an era when indie kids and hipsters are trying to look old-timey because it’s cool,” says LaFarge. He’s riding out that fad and plans to keep on doing what he’s doing which, he says, he’s been doing since he was a kid.
Time’s on his side: “I think in 20 years, people will understand.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Pokey LaFarge
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, July 12 (9 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show. http://thegreyeagle.com.)