Pokey LaFarge has been on the road for a month. He sounds strangely serene -- his voice relaxed and dripping over the line like warm molasses over johnny cakes -- despite the winter rain currently killing his vibe in North Dakota. "I'm freezing my butt off," he laughs.
It's the stretch between dates in the West and the long-ass haul back to God's Country. He's more interested in observing the weather as the van rolls down highways and two lanes than watching the Internet for show reviews, fan photos and exclamatory sentences about his forthcoming album, Pokey LaFarge. He's seen 90 degrees and torrential gullywashers in Louisiana, weirdo cold in the desert, those lukewarm rains that enslave the Northwest and the kind of California heat that can cause one to soak through one's cotton best in minutes.
"I'm looking at the world through a windshield," Pokey says. But he's not complaining; his wanderlust runs as deep as his blue-collar soul. Pokey left home at seventeen, though anyone with a passing familiarity with Bloomington, Illinois, can see why he chose to busk on street corners in the West instead of attending the local university. "Luckily I've been traveling a lot since I was a kid; it's what I've always been on a quest to do," he explains. "I'm hungry to see more places. I've been to enough places to know what I want to go back to, and there'll be some people there waiting for me. Whether it's friends or fans, I have an obligation to keep playing music for them."
By his own admission, he's duty-bound to the American people who still don't really know American music. After all, what is America without swing or ragtime? What is the South or Chicago without the blues; what are any of us without jazz? "For the people that haven't been exposed to the plethora of American music that I have, I'm quite a student of it," he says. "As long there are people out there who haven't heard real American music, there are millions of Americans who don't know the artists and people who paved the way for what we have today."
He met two-thirds of his band (St. Louisians Ryan Koenig and Joey Glynn) doing just that: playing music streetside in Asheville, North Carolina. Adam Hoskins joined up soon after to form the South City Three, but early 2013 saw the next step for the St. Louis band -- the addition of two new members, TJ Muller and Chloe Feoranzo, on trumpet and clarinet/saxophone, respectively.
On the new disc -- the group's second on Jack White's Third Man Records -- the evolution manifests in a bigger sound that's been delighting fans since February. The album is named after the group's leader. "It was a direct response to me dropping the name 'The South City Three' and just showing, now that I have more band members, it's just going to go back to my name," he says. "With the instrumentation on this album, there's a lot more than just the three guys I had playing with me. It's a broadening of the sound; it's a fuller sound. Of course, they're all my songs, as usual. I think it just made the most sense for the next step, as this is kind of our major label signing."
St. Louis is never far from Pokey LaFarge's mind or his mouth -- he's certainly doing his part to redefine the St. Louis blues. "I like being from St. Louis because it's an underdog city -- people are very humble -- and perhaps that keeps people off the road and at home for some reason or another. Being that I've always been a world traveler, I've kept my Midwestern roots, and it has helped people start talking about St. Louis. And that's what we want."
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Artist profile on Pokey LaFarge from Channel Nine.
The first single off Pokey LaFarge is a love song to St. Louis and the Midwest entitled "Central Time," a sweet little barn-stormer that'll have toes tapping and hips all aquiver on May 31 at Casa Loma Ballroom, the only St. Louis date on the band's four-month tour.
"We're very proud that we didn't have to move to New York City or Los Angeles or Nashville or Austin or Portland or Seattle to say that we made it, you know? We stayed right home in St. Louis, and we worked really hard; we did it from there. I'm proud of that."
"I'm certainly very fortunate to have a great fanbase in St. Louis," LaFarge adds. "We have a connection with a lot of people in that town, friends and family. We certainly talk up St. Louis wherever we go...I think St. Louis weeds out the weak."
The "Jack White Effect" can't go unmentioned -- for now -- and though the Cinderfella story is familiar, it bears repeating. One day, Pokey's manager is all, "So, like, Jack White digs your shit," and Pokey's all, "Aces, man. That cat is alright." (We're reading between the lines here, forgive.) And then Pokey's phone like, rings and stuff, and he's expecting one of Mr. White's henchmen but blammo! Jack White's on the line! "Hi. Jack White. You don't suck. Come to Nashville." While everyone loves a tale of obscurity-cum-notoriety, Pokey's characteristically nonchalant about recording with White, touring with White, playing on his solo record Blunderbuss, counting White as one of his homies -- though Pokey would never use the word "homie."
While he's obviously grateful for the opportunity, it hasn't changed the man himself -- even if he'd never gotten that phone call, he'd still be wearing the same clothes, playing the same music and touring the country and the world regardless. "I don't care about getting famous," he says. "To me it's about making a living and working hard. That's what I respect most about Jack. With him, you just get to work. I guess I would say it's maybe the same thing that I've been doing forever: Just do exactly what I want to do when I want to do it. And that's what he does." (Without White's imprimatur though, Pokey may not get the luxury of life-sustaining watermelon in his tour rider: "I'm living on a steady diet of barbeque and watermelon," he says.) He decries the media machine that pushes products instead of "the real deal," a category in which he doubtless places himself and his band. They are, after all, an elegant and thorough homage to their sonic forebears. It goes without saying that Pokey will never sacrifice aesthetic for radio play.
For all his reverence for the past, Pokey is quick to say that we have it all, right now, and while the art/music/architecture/clothing/food was by all accounts better back when our grandparents were doing the jitterbug, we have no right to gripe. "Our parents, our grandparents had it a lot harder than we ever did. People around the world right now have it a lot worse than we ever did. We have everything we need at our fingertips. It's important for people to appreciate that."
Whenever he's on the subject of America, which is often, he turns quickly to politics, saying that quality was better back then because Americans fought and died to make it so. You couldn't find something "made in China" when Sleepy John Estes was strumming the blues, and in Pokey's mind, we could easily return to the days when quality was king and people, not corporations, ran the country. "We're too busy telling people, 'You need to go to college, you need to go to college,' when you can make just as much money as a carpenter or a plumber, working a trade job with benefits as opposed to paying thousands and thousands of dollars in college debt. I think it's so interesting that people don't expect me, who looks like a little Archie musician kid, to be so proud and gung-ho American. But I think it makes sense. I'm a red-blooded American, but I feel like I have a different experience and a more hands-on approach to this country."
His hands-on approach is paying off. And even though he's at home on the road, Pokey LaFarge is still just a Midwestern boy getting by on Central Time.