His penchant for the early 20th century transcends fedoras and suspenders; it inspires original music and frames his sense of self. LaFarge doesn't claim to be a revivalist, but instead a preservationist -- his mission is to continue a tradition of distinctly American culture.
Along with his group, the South City Three, LaFarge has met recent success including a European tour, a working relationship with Jack White and an in-progress album collaboration with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. His current release, "Middle of Everywhere," is an upbeat ride down a dusty road that showcases LaFarge and the South City Three in all of their old-time glory. The group joins the Twangfest lineup (presented by 88.1 KDHX) for the first time, appearing at the Schlafly Tap Room on June 6.
The following excerpt is from a phone interview that took place as LaFarge waited for a plane to New York City. He reflects on the importance of travel, personal identity and good beer.
Francisco Fisher: Travel has been a theme in your music. What was it like to travel around as a busker and a hitchhiker, and what is it like now?
Pokey LaFarge: Traveling around hitchhiking was certainly not a preferred means of travel. I had to do it because I was forced to, because I didn't have any other way to get around at one time. But it started out growing up, not necessarily romanticizing the idea, but reading a lot of mid-20th century literature like the Beat writers, specifically Kerouac, and reading Steinbeck from an early time. It was really wanting to be ensconced in a different side of American culture that was never really popularized.
It's a romantic side of the American culture, specifically train-hopping and the hitchhiking. The riverboat culture and the train culture -- nobody else has that. That's a pure Americana thing. I think that along with the music I was listening to at a very young age, I was like, man, I've got to get out there and get to the core of this country and, in the mean time, search what's at the heart of me, to go out there and take a journey. And that's what hitchhiking was.
That was early on. And then of course the beginning of my traveling solo about five years ago, I was driving around in a car and sleeping in my car. And then with the boys, that's been about three and a half years in a van, and we were sleeping in the van for about the first year and a half. I'm proud to say that we're making a good living now, and we don't have to sleep in the van anymore.
But traveling has always been something that's come along with the territory. If you want to go out to see the world, or if you want to spread your music out there around the world, you have to travel to do it. It's something you learn to embrace, and it becomes what you know. It becomes an art form, traveling, in it's own right. But a lot of my songs are about traveling, because you write about what you know.
The way I travel now, flying and driving, just allows me to make a living and get more rest, to attempt to be more healthy and to spend more time at home. I have family all over the world, but the core of my family has and always will be Illinois and the Midwest, the middle of the heart of it all.
The name of the new album is "Middle of Everywhere." What does that title mean to you?
Going back to the Midwest thing, we're right here in the middle of the country. But at the same time, we're always traveling, so I'm always in between one place and another, always in the middle of some place, always in between somewhere.
Both geographically and culturally?
Certainly. We're definitely spokesmen for our country, for our culture, for our region, for our town, for the region of our town, South City St. Louis. So there's a lot of things that people don’t know about and there's a lot of misconceptions that people have. There's a lot of negativity purported from the rest of the world towards America. Sometimes it's grounded, and I think other times, it's complete hogwash. So, it comes back to the reason that culture is important. I always take to the people who are proud of where they come from because it shows distinction and it shows character. That way, we can learn to embrace our differences.
Has there been an experience recently where you've found yourself defending Americans?
We just got back from a two-month tour in Europe, and it's incredible the misconceptions people have about America and Americans. It's crazy. It's one thing at a time, really. You can't change everything at once. Let's just get down to beer. People in Europe think that America has terrible beer. They literally think that all we have is Budweiser and Coors Light. And it's like, no, man, St. Louis has 10 to 15 breweries and growing -- just St. Louis… So there's the beer thing. Because I think good beer reflects a good culture. So we love beer and take great offense to people saying we have bad beer. But they don't know, because Budweiser has ruined it. McDonalds has ruined it. Major corporations have watered down the culture.
So would you say your music and style looks to the past, before many of the negative stereotypes that shape the way we're seen around the world?
Nothing's black and white, but there was a time when the American identity was so strong, it was distinguished as unmistakably American. I think people should embrace these things about our country. These days, with globalization, I think culture is world wide and every single culture is being watered down. The old accents are gone. That old St. Louis accent? Nobody in our generation speaks like that; it's our parents and grandparents. All the accents are getting watered down.
I know that I tend to romanticize these things, but I do that with everything. I'm overdramatic. I'm a romantic. I'm an artist, for crying out loud, that's what we do. Beyond that, it's just trying to preserve things that are real. It's just more interesting. I think most people would agree that it was a classier time. There was better quality in the photography, perhaps, the music, the food, the clothing. The quality was there. And these are things I was raised on a little bit, but you have to take to it, and I did.
My overall goal, with the music specifically, is not about living in the past. I don't want to go back in the past. I'm here now and I like the way things are now for the most part. And it's making the best of both worlds. You can't go back. You have to embrace the now, and I'm living in the now. So what I'm saying is that this isn't a new art form, but this is a current and long-lasting art form -- American music. The things we invented, rock 'n' roll, country, country swing, western swing, jazz, blues, these things that were invented in America have been around 100 years, and the roots go back way longer than that. So it's not like going back in the past. It's just like classical music; that shit's been played for hundreds of years. You don't see somebody playing Vivaldi on the violin as retro.
Jazz is the new classical music. And jazz is not just the jazz we think about from Miles Davis -- jazz died in the '30s. All those guys who backed up George Jones and Merle Haggard, all those shit-hot players out of Nashville and Texas -- they're jazzers. They can't play no solos without knowing jazz.
So, it's important not to make things black and white and put walls up on genres. It's important for me to continue the tradition. And it's like, I dress a certain way, when I play music I talk funny or sing funny, or whatever people want to say. But people are taking to it, and it’s important for people to realize why they're taking to it. They ask me the questions -- "Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?" -- but I accept that. Because they are trying to get down to the bottom of why they actually like it themselves.
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three perform at Twangfest 16 at the Schlafly Tap Room on June 6.