Pokey LaFarge works retro soul and St. Louis pride

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St. Louis songwriter Pokey LaFarge is on a roll. Since releasing a couple of brilliant retro Americana albums with his band the South City Three he’s become a musical celebrity in Europe and the U.S., his songs brimming with wit, crisp playing, sly humour, and sharply etched cameos of life. They’ve even caught the ear of fellow-Midwesterner Jack White who produced last year’s single “Chitlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County”.

The music imaginatively juggles blues, ragtime, country, jazz, western swing, vaudeville, bluegrass, and old-time fiddle and banjo tunes, and is rooted in St. Louis between the ’20s and ’40s. Tagged the Gateway to the West, the city has long been a crossroads at the heart of the U.S., where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet.

“We all take a lot of pride in St. Louis, which sometimes gets overlooked as a place,” says LaFarge, reached on his cellphone in a van hurtling “somewhere in the maze that’s the Pennsylvania Turnpike”, between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “The music is old but it’s certainly current. It’s still here and there are lots of people playing it—and that will be playing it 100 years from now. It’s deeply ingrained, almost like a spiritual thing. “

“St. Louis is the ‘south-est’ of the North, and the ‘north-est’ of the South,” he continues. “It’s definitely a meeting place. Look at ragtime—Scott Joplin was born in Texas and raised in Missouri. People were constantly going east and west, and with the river you had jazz coming up from New Orleans. A few decades later, there’s Chuck Berry. That guy is country as hell. That’s what rock ’n’ roll is—what it should be anyway. It’s country-rooted music.”

LaFarge has absorbed Midwest music traditions in the Jazz Age, the Depression years, and the New Deal era, recasting them in songs you’d swear were hatched when Franklin D. Roosevelt was pres and zoot suits the height of style. He’s caught it all—diction, tone, look, and feel.

But authenticity isn’t really LaFarge’s concern. His shows with the South City Three are contemporary—nobody’s pretending to be anywhere or anyone else. The attention to period is more a matter of soul.

From his grandfathers, LaFarge acquired a keen interest in history early on. In his teens he started playing guitar and learned the blues, then switched to mandolin and began his explorations of other Midwestern music traditions. Writers such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac were also major inspirations. Soon the songs began flowing.

LaFarge made a couple of fine solo recordings before teaming up in 2009 with the South City Three—Joey Glynn (bass), Adam Hoskins (guitar), and Ryan Koenig (harmonica, washboard, and snare). They’ve recorded two critically acclaimed discs Riverboat Soul (2010) and Middle of Everywhere (2012), and have been getting major airplay in the U.S. That’s how Jack White got hooked.

“Our music was played by WSM–AM, which is perhaps the most influential radio station in North America,” says LaFarge. “Back in the ’20s it was home to the Grand Ole Opry show which was hugely influential, and it still seems to have a big corner on the market in Nashville. Jack was in Nashville, heard us, and called me up. The single has been successful, and we’ve subsequently done some more recordings with him for his new album Blunderbuss. We’ve also been doing shows opening up for Jack White. It’s been a good relationship thus far.”

Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three play the Rio Theatre on Saturday (September 1).

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