Pokey LaFarge looks and sounds like he’s from another era. The lanky St. Louis singer-songwriter and roots music rapscallion often seems like he just walked in from the 1930s Midwest, with a mix of aw-shucks romanticism and punk-rock zeal that brings to mind similar musical acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Justin Townes Earle. His tunes, as sparkling and alive as they often feel, have the structural and thematic glimmers of pre-war blues, country, and barroom jazz.
While his latest effort, this year’s Manic Revelations, is a bit of deflection from that mold thanks to richer, horn-laden arrangements that borrow more inflections from soul and early rock ‘n’ roll, LaFarge is thoroughly comfortable with the aesthetic persona he’s crafted.
“I think you’re a product of what you listened to,” he offers by way of explanation. “There was a time when I listened to a lot of old music, therefore I wrote music that sounded kind of old. They create stuff that really touches you, and then I wanted to create something that touches people in that same way. So you kind of come from the same ballpark.”
LaFarge doesn’t see his music as necessarily “retro” or consciously a throwback. Rather, he sees his musical venture as an investment in finding something that feels more real and sturdy than flash-in-the-pan contemporary sounds that are almost instantly disposable by design.
“I think we’re all clamoring for tangibility these days, in an era where everything is created to be here today and gone tomorrow. Nothing is created to last,” he argues. “I think music and art has the opportunity, as it always has, to last the test of time. And I think certain roots music has that organic quality that touches people’s souls. You can see a lot of different things in the culture. People are renovating old buildings again, younger people are moving back into cities, right? All of these other boutique things that people are making again, not just music. Why are people making clothes again? Why are they making beer again in abundance?”
As much as it’s tempting to cast LaFarge in that dusty Americana paradigm like something out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, both his records and perspective seem more cut from the cloth of the urban revitalization and return to locally made and crafted goods and services that he’s talking about, something which seems to have risen alongside the rise of a globally connected society.
“I do think that it’s tied to a cultural shift, and more heavily in our generation, although with older folks as well,” LaFarge agrees. “I think roots music is definitely getting more of its due, having a light shined on it now. Of course it’s been around for a while and never died, it’s just been in more of the underground, like a lot of the best music and best art. I firmly believe a lot of the best singers are the ones you’ve never heard of.”
Such a singer is what LaFarge is mostly content being, at least for the moment. Although he’s maintained a steady string of albums since his 2006 debut and has landed a host of TV and soundtrack appearances over the years as well as developed a musical relationship with Jack White, there’s a kind of blue-collar artistry to LaFarge that you can’t really shake. He belongs in the smoky barroom sending out a crooning blues number of rollicking twang throwdown with unfettered zeal, confident in the timeless spirit of his tunes.
“I know a lot of great artists who have been able to achieve longevity through sustainability. Not always with quality, but still putting stuff out. It’s all I’ve known — as a I kid I would write and write and write,” he says when asked about the longevity of his career.
“As long as I have a fulfilling life as I have been, that’s what has allowed me to be so prolific. I don’t really have any fear that that would change.”