Traditional American music is often framed as a piece of history, not a living thing filled with vim and vigor. But you'd never guess it when watching Pokey LaFarge, a revivalist of old-school Americana ditties who's playing UW Memorial Union Terrace this Saturday, Aug. 3.
Mixing country blues, Western swing, string-driven ragtime and gypsy jazz, the 30-year-old musician is a retro gem, offering instant sing-alongs that belie his young age. LaFarge's tunes feature his quivering voice and acoustic-guitar strums, but they're built out with an arsenal of woodwinds, lap-steel guitar, piano, fiddle and harmonica.
When Isthmus spoke to LaFarge in 2011, his career was ramping up, but his vision was fully formed. He explained that "people respond to [American music] all over the world because it's expressive and powerful."
What's he been up to since then? A new, self-titled album, for starters. Here, with commentary from LaFarge himself, are notes on three of its standout tracks.
We've all been hit over the head with pop songs professing love for our country's coasts. With "Central Time," LaFarge writes a toe-tapping ode to the Midwestern way of life, "gettin' by on Central Time" as "a plain, old Midwestern boy."
"[It's] a passionate song that gives words to my defense of the Midwest -- where I'm from and where a lot of people don't get enough credit," he says.
'The Devil Ain't Lazy'
Penned by Fred Rose, a songwriter from the 1930s and '40s, this cautionary cover draws shades of both Django Reinhardt and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with a mean harmonica solo that precedes a serious gypsy-jazz jam.
"A tale about the fictional character the Devil," LaFarge says. "Just a reminder."
Take heed of LaFarge's fiery warning: "The Devil ain't lazy/No, siree!/He roams around with sticks and stones.... The Devil ain't no lazybones/He works 24 hours a day."
'Day After Day'
With influence from 1920s jazz and expert exchanges among the guitar, horns and woodwinds, "Day After Day" laments America's rat-race reality.
LaFarge says he and guitarist Adam Hoskins wrote it "to all the office-working commuters out there."