Issue July 15, 2008

A river runs through him

As scribes stumble across the page to find the cleverest description of Pokey LaFarge, it’s easy to get lost in the caricatures. Who can touch the observation from the St. Louis Riverfront Times that graces the performer’s MySpace page? “His guitar sounds like a ukulele, his voice like a transgendered punk Bessie Smith, and his style suggests a hobo Pee-wee Herman.” Not me.

No matter how deep and colorful the ink, the plunk and stomp of Pokey’s old-time music always rises to the top. He is prolific, profound but mostly professional. Relentless performing and writing are paying off in these modern times. Donned in the past, two-tone bucks and bow-tie or twill button-down and denim bibs, he is a sight to behold with a song to match.

Approaching a five-year anniversary as a Louisville resident, LaFarge has endeared himself to the barrooms and festivals that embrace his homage to sounds of the ’20s and ’30s, with just enough twist to satisfy the fringe.

Why Pokey? You know, the orange horse, prison, putting one foot in and one foot out? None of the above. LaFarge is a family name, and he’s been Pokey for a long time. The man explains: “I’m not stupid. I’ve never been in jail. I just know how to take my time.”

Louisville music fans will have something fresh to spin from LaFarge this summer. The official release of Beat, Move and Shake is July 18, courtesy of the Big Muddy label in St. Louis. The 12 original tunes will follow the ragtime acoustic debut of Marmalade, a self-released collection from 2006.

Oddly enough, with emphasis on odd, Pokey is a dedicated preservationist. An impossibly youthful fellow, he celebrates the Delta-meets-hill-country brand of country blues. His live performance recalls a time of sepia-tone photographs, corn liquor and 78 rpm crackle.

Pokey remains true to his vintage muse. If he were on a television show, he might be like one of the Darlings from the Andy Griffith Show. We know that the Dillards were real, Mayberry was not and, hot damn, those boys could pick.  

Starting with the string band known as The Schwillbillies in Madison, Wisc., and taking on a guest mandolin slot with the folk-punk unit the Hackensaw Boys, Pokey got his quirky vocals and hot finger-picking style out to receptive audiences and media. Touring since he was 18, he has shared stages with such country-fried roots royalty as Old Crow Medicine Show, Backyard Tire Fire, Robinella and Donna the Buffalo. 

As much as we’d all like to visualize this guy cranking up a Depression-era flatbed Ford, the fact is that his loyal Toyota Corolla gets him to most of the gigs in the Midwest and Southern states. According to the asphalt ticker on the dash, he’s logged 107,000 miles so far — 40,000 this year. 

I caught up with Pokey on a rare day off, taking a break in Lexington, his first time off the road in a month and a half. For a man who is romanced by old cities, their bricks, rivers and music, he found himself somewhat landlocked in Fayette County — unless you count a drive to the Kentucky River. 

LEO: What is your earliest memory of a river, and how do you think that they have influenced you?

PL: Cairo, Ill., at the bottom of Illinois where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers converge. Whenever I want to settle down and get a house, I’m going to get a houseboat and roam by way of river. I like the way rivers roll. Great rhythm. 

LEO: I guess this was somewhat geographic. I’m taken by your love for rivers. The river takes, the river gives, as we all know from the recent floods. Just had to talk about the river for a moment.

PL: I love what you’re saying. I lived in southern Illinois during the Mississippi flood of ’93. When you grow up around a great natural wonder, you learn to respect it from an early age, whether it be mountains, rivers, lakes, ocean, etc. I have some friends in Iowa who probably hate the Mississippi River right now. Also I see the river sort of as the world’s natural roadway. It spreads culture. The evolution of our American music has the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to thank. Not to mention others like the Tennessee River, Big Sandy and James. 

LEO: Where do you buy/find your wardrobe?

PL: Anywhere I can get it, you know. Mostly friends with similar sensibilities but also vintage/thrift stores. My influences stylistically are old men and dead men.

LEO: What instruments are on the road with you?

PL: A ’56 Silvertone Parlour guitar and a ’51 Silvertone Archtop guitar.

LEO: What muses engage you?

PL: Women, whiskey and old music.

LEO: Can you give me the brief story of how you followed love to Louisville?

PL: Well, I was traveling around with a “circus” of old-time music performers. We traveled through Louisville and played a show and I met a knockout gal and fell in love and stuck around. I fell in love with Louisville at the same time and it made the whole love affair that much more intense. 

LEO: Who do you think you’re channeling?

PL: Charles Bukowski, Blind Blake, Townes van Zandt, Bessie Smith, Lightnin’ Hopkins … an inner child and an inner demon.

Find him at www.pokeylafarge.com. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com