At the onset of his new, self-titled album, Pokey LaFarge sings — amid a light acoustic strut that falls somewhere between country blues and subtle swing — about being "a plain old Midwestern boy gettin' by on Central Time."
The tune is remarkably indicative of the wordplay and stylistic mischief that has made this roots-conscious songster such a hit with indie audiences here and abroad. While he might don a sleek pin stripe suit onstage or dig into sounds that echo long ago Americana, a song like Central Time is fashioned solely for the here and now.
"I was exposed to this music and I took to it," said the Illinois-born, St. Louis-raised LaFarge, 30. "But there is a very real reason why I took to it. It's easier to analyze that now, of course.
"Looking at how I was at 12, 13 or 14, the time when I was getting into music, I was already into all kinds of American history. I wanted to know where the country came from and where people came from and why we are the way we are. I wanted a philosophical and historical mind-set. At the same time, the quality, purity and honesty of the music — it all painted this portrait, just like American literature did, of what this country really is. The tone of the acoustic instruments, the high lonesome sound, the cries I heard when these artists would sing. ... It gave me a deep appreciation of mankind in general.
"Bill Monroe was really the one that got me started playing like this. I have ultra respect for the man. This was raw, raw music. It was the same with rock 'n' roll and punk rock. But after listening to rock 'n' roll, I thought, 'This is so much better.'"
If LaFarge declares allegiance to the undiluted emotive sway of Monroe's music, a listen to the album Pokey LaFarge also suggests the railroad blues and country of Jimmie Rodgers, a level of roots-inspired romanticism that befits Lead Belly and the brassy, animated swing of such comparatively recent stylists as the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
After releasing his debut album, Marmalade, in 2006, LaFarge began building up devout audiences in North America and Europe. In short order, his music was featured as part of such varied but vintage-themed soundtracks to Boardwalk Empire and The Lone Ranger. Pokey LaFarge, though, sees the singer signed to Third Man Records, founded by Jack White. He also served as opening act for an extensive tour White embarked upon to support his album Blunderbuss.
But two of LaFarge's foremost heroes remain in the family: his two grandfathers. One helped foster his fascination with music, the other furthered his equal interest in American history.
"I was never into a lot of things that were hip at my age," LaFarge said. "But I've always had a lot of respect and close relationships with the elderly people in my family, and elderly people in general. That's given me a deep respect for my history and how we've gotten to this place in our country, for better or for worse. It gives you a deep responsibility to live life to the fullest knowing these people and what they have been through to pave the way for us. And that's not even counting the musicians and the innovators of country's music.
"A lot of kids revolt against this stuff. I didn't. I was historically minded. None of this was ever thrust upon me, either. It was certainly never a pressure thing, because my parents were musicians, too. Perhaps it's genealogy, man. Perhaps it's passed down in the blood."
What keeps LaFarge's music from becoming a purely retro-minded exercise is the simple fact that he writes and sings his own songs. They may betray a style or sentiment from the past. They may pursue the possibilities of purely acoustic music in ways that scores of bands have before him. But the songs, as well as the very workmanlike spirits that drive them, are all reflections of a craftsmanship forged in today's world.
"In that sense, the music is modernized," LaFarge said. "That would be the positive side of modernization and progress, I guess. Mostly, I am just a purveyor of quality. I want quality in all things. A quality life is too short to listen to and play crappy music. I see myself as a craftsman, the same way my grandpa was a carpenter.
"A craftsman is not somebody who creates music on a computer. Instruments have been around for thousands of years. They are made of wood and they are beautiful things. Call me crazy, but I think of them as tools. Have respect for the instrument. Have respect for the music."
IF YOU GO
Pokey LaFarge, The Tillers
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 17
Where: Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave.
Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Available at (859) 309-9499 or Cosmic-charlies.com
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.