Pokey LaFarge is riding shotgun with his girlfriend through the outskirts of Orlando, coming up on Sea World, heading to a car show, eating oranges and tossing off bon mots like a carnie on speed. He's probably wearing suspenders, a straw hat and wing-tipped shoes. If the casting call comes through for the young Jimmie Rodgers, he's ready.
The question isn't how this 26-year-old, guitar-plucking blues singer — who was born in Benton, Illinois, and is now based in St. Louis — got to Florida. That's easy: Love and Interstates 10 and 75 took him there. (Only for now; he'll be back.) The real question is this: How did the diminutive songster, in the thrall of once widely popular but now fairly obscure blues and early jazz artists such as Blind Blake, Ma Rainey and the Dixieland Jug Blowers, become so popular? He's landed a record deal with the Trade Root Music Group, amassed a bounty of press, scored a Daytrotter recording session and recently returned from a UK tour that, bizarrely, took him to the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland.
"We did six shows in England, two in Scotland," he says of the winter tour with his band, the South City Three. "Humbly speaking, we blew it up. We're going back for six weeks in August. The biggest reaction is: What in the hell kind of music you call that? That's the main thing. But people are very appreciative, more so than a lot of places over here. They're enthusiasts and fairly knowledgeable about old-time music, very articulate, and they want to talk about how it was back in the day and how it is now in America."
LaFarge is the first to recognize the absurdity of his role as spokeman for the good ol', bad ol', old-time blues days, but he's not shirking the responsibility — and he knows his shit: His grandfather played in the St. Louis Banjo Club and taught him about the Civil War and World War II history. But he's the first member of his immediate family to take music seriously.
"I've been a student of this music for years," he says. "I feel like I'm not talking out of my ass. I think people are just excited that young people are into old-time music."
Pokey met the blues — really met them — when he was fourteen years old, living in Normal, Illinois. He liked to hang out at a pizza parlor run by a guy named Juice.
"He was a bald, white, mongrel-looking dude," LaFarge recalls. "He was a sad motherfucker. He drank, listened to the blues and made pizzas all day. It was a blues haven. The thing that really started me was Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. The Muddy record was the Folk Singer album with Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon, all acoustic. Fucking incredible. That's when I learned that blues could be acoustic. I was like most people are today, that the blues are Albert King or Stevie Ray Vaughan or B.B. King, who hasn't made a good record in 25 years."
Over the phone, he's cagey about his birth name, but "Pokey" is a nickname he's had since youth. "LaFarge" echoes folk legend Peter LaFarge, but probably just sounded right to him. His quirky but precise take on Depression-era barbershop fashion matches his street-corner harmonica, guitar and kazoo sound. It's a cultivated persona — which to some may border on shtick — but for LaFarge, it's not an act: It's who he's become.
"It's hard to see the balance between what's fateful and what you create yourself," he says. "I don't know, man. I always wanted to be different. I realized that the blues was something that hit me in the heart. So it was true. I wanted to sing, and I was already a writer, so I wrote the songs to sing them. I was hitchhiking, performing on the street, and that's how I learned to sing so loud. First town was Eugene, Oregon. I didn't know shit. I don't think I made a dime the first day. I just knew I wanted to go west. Thank God I wasn't like Buster Keaton in the movie Go West. I didn't fall in love with a cow."
Riverboat Soul, which was officially released on February 16, is Pokey's third and strongest record. Driven by the guitar, rhythm section and voices of the South City Three — Adam Hoskins, Joey Glynn and Ryan Koenig — Soul was recorded over two days in July 2009 in Nashville through the old Neumann microphones once used by John Hartford and Norman Blake. The sound and songwriting, brimming with blues and country diction and rhythms, are faithful to the pre-War string band style, but not too faithful. Opener "La La Blues" swings brightly, "Bag of Bones" drifts like an elegiac John Hartford classic, "In the Graveyard Now" jumps like a cricket, and "Migraines and Heartpains" captures all the hilarious hokum of a medicine-show tall tale.
"I'm pretty happy with it," LaFarge says. "It's good to have the band represented. It will probably be a couple more years before I get the sound I want, and that will be with a bigger ensemble."
What shines through most on Soul isn't LaFarge's style or studiousness, reflected off a scuffed and scratched mirror of the past. Instead, it's the same spirit that animates anyone who plays music to begin with: because it's so much fun you can't stop. And that spirit and sound seems to be translating to audiences across continents, ages and cultural divides.
"I am who I am," LaFarge says of his persona. "What they see is what they get. If people are coming out for that, then that's part of it. You can't take one away from the other. Do you think people went to see Elvis because he could dance like that? The image is a reference point. I've cultivated my music, and I've cultivated a style as well. I love clothes and hats. Some girls think I'm cute. Some guys think I'm goofy. But it is what it is. When you hear the songs, you refer to the human being they came from."