Pokey has a vintage quality

MICHAEL DWYER
Last updated 12:37 20/03/2014
pokey

REBEL YELL: ‘‘If you want to be punk rock these days – if you’re American, that is – there is nothing more revolutionary than playing an acoustic guitar and a fiddle and a mandolin and rejecting the contrived electronic music,’’ says Pokey LaFarge.

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Pokey Lafarge is at home in Louisville, Kentucky, working on his truck. It's a blue 65 Dodge. Needs new spark plugs, is all. Hence his attire: green World War II slacks, old flannel shirt and eight-point cap. ''I guess some people like to call 'em newsboy caps,'' he notes for historical context.

It's not like he dressed up as Hank Williams' automobile mechanic to thrill the neighbours.

This is just how he rolls. ''Old-time music'' is his business and his predilection for vintage quality doesn't quit when he swaps his 1946 Epiphone Archtop guitar for a monkey wrench.

''I think that my ideas on stage and off stage, musical or non-musical, they're one and the same,'' he says.

''I truly believe that in a lot of ways, the definition of folk music: what you see and what you hear is what you get.

''There's no falsity there. I'm speaking my mind.''

When he says ''I'', he means Andrew Heissler. He got called Pokey as a kid. LaFarge is ''just a stage name, to be quite honest with you. I'm still Andrew Heissler every day, when I go to the bank or what have you.''

He doesn't mention the parents who gave him that name, but he does credit his grandparents for the values he holds dear as a self-described ''evolutionary preservationist''.

You can sort of hear what that means on his latest, self-titled album. These are new songs, mostly, but so steeped in country swing and jump blues, so authentically garnished with street corner brass and Andrews Sisters' harmonies, that you need to check those songwriting credits twice.

''These are things I've learnt myself,'' he says, ''growing up in a small town in Illinois with various

open-minded grandparents, one of whom bought me my first banjo and guitar and mandolin and took me along to my first bluegrass festivals.''

Another, his father's father, was a veteran of World War II and an amateur historian who sparked young Pokey's enduring interest in that regard.

When it came to music, he admits he was swayed by the glittering charms of the MTV age, but he soon made more discerning choices. Dylan, the Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd were lenses through which to glean insight into older, more noble traditions.

''I thought well, I don't really like what's going on today in some regards,'' he says. ''I felt there were holes in American society. I felt there was a lack of quality in a lot of things that are offered to us, or perhaps forced upon us.''

His worldly air of regret belies his 31 years as he laments, ''this attitude that permeates throughout the world from Western culture now: more-more-more for less-less-less''.

''I felt this wasn't the case, in a lot of ways, in early America. I feel quality was more prevalent. There was a standard of excellence.

''In music, sure, but also in the quality of architecture, food, clothing and a whole way of life that has been sent to sweatshops in China.

''It seems like that's all hanging on by a thread now.''

Even his diction harks back to more slow and steady times. Bouncing through pop culture's hall of mirrors, it's reminiscent of the young black kid named Woody Guthrie who plays one version of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' film, I'm Not There.

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In one scene in the film, as the youngster in the newsboy cap waxes lyrical about boxcars and dustbowls, he's stopped in his tracks by an older woman.

''Live your own time, child,'' she says.

Pokey LaFarge is no stranger to that kind of criticism. There's a clip on YouTube of one of his early songs performed in a prison cell in St Louis that eerily echoes Dylan echoing something blues legend Son House might have bounced off the walls of Mississippi State Penitentiary 90 years ago.

''Knowing as a child that I could create my own world; that I have the ability to create anything I want for myself - I feel very fortunate for that. That attitude is what has brought me across the world and made me successful.

''I've seen things in 30 years that most people don't see in a lifetime. I've played with musicians that some people only dream of.''

None of it, on Pokey LaFarge, is actually about the olden days. It's about women trouble, rising floodwaters, time zones and passing seasons, the cost of health care, home sweet home and life on the road and generally ''staying a part of that stuff that don't change'', as Dylan once put it.

The way LaFarge puts it is like this: ''If you want to be punk rock these days - if you're American, that is - there is nothing more revolutionary than playing an acoustic guitar and a fiddle and a mandolin and rejecting the contrived electronic music, or at least the path that everyone seems to want to walk just because everybody else is walking it.

''Being on the underground, where so much great American music still exists  . th. th.  this is where the change is. We're going back to more localised industries, microbreweries, local farming, different trade jobs, architectural preservation and restoration, barbering  . th. th.  all of these things are coming back because people want quality again."

THE DETAILS

Pokey Lafarge plays Wellington's Bodega March 20, King Street Live, Masterton, March 21 and Black Barn Vineyards, Havelock North, March 22.

- The Dominion Post

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