Growing up just outside of Chicago, Pokey LaFarge always rooted for the Cubs. As a kid, he wanted to be a sportswriter when he grew up, like Studs Terkel. Instead, he became a musician, and even though he travels the country professionally, his allegiance to his hometown team hasn’t waned. “All of my dad’s side of the family is up in Chicago,” he explains, “so it’s in my blood.”
The Cubs may have a history of losing records and botched championship drives, but they do have a history. A long one, too: The franchise was established in the 1870s, making them one of the oldest teams in baseball (or any sport, for that matter). And watching a game at Wrigley Field, with its analog scoreboard and ivy-covered outfield walls, is like stepping into a time machine.
LaFarge’s music works in much the same way. While thoroughly modern in their concerns, his songs hearken back to prewar America — in other words, well before the Curse of the Billy Goat in 1945. His heroes are Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell (“the greatest country singer of all time,” he gushes), Hank Williams and Bob Wills.
For his latest album, simply titled Pokey LaFarge, he worked with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, then signed with Jack White’s Third Man Records. As he drove north through California to play a show in Portland, Ore., LaFarge talked to CMT Edge about writing songs, traveling and hanging on to your roots.
How did you end up at Third Man?
LaFarge: It all started out at the granddaddy of all radio stations, WSM 650 AM [in Nashville]. Two Thanksgivings ago, they were playing a bunch of holiday and food songs. And they played my song, “Sweet Potato Blues.” Jack heard it and really liked my voice. Our managers got in touch and that’s when I went down and recorded that 45 with him [“Chitlin Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County”]. After Ketch and I recorded the album, we sent it out to labels, and Third Man happened to be the perfect fit.
How did you hook up with Ketch Secor? Are you an Old Crow fan?
Ketch and I have known each other since I was 19. I’m 29 now. I would go and see Old Crow shows when I was a young old-time musician. We just kept in contact over the years. We both have a lot of respect for each other personally as well as musically, so I consider him my friend. On this album I really wanted to work with a producer, and I knew Ketch was getting into that side of things a little bit more.
What did he bring to the album?
He was really able to help with the lyrics. He’s a good songwriter, and he helped me pull out the true messages of the songs. I write a lot of lyrics, so he was able to skim them back and help me edit them, like a good producer should. It was really great having an editor. We wrote a couple of songs together for the album, too. “City Summer Blues” was a co-write, and then he contributed a verse on “One Town at a Time.” And Ketch was a really positive force in the studio, as well. He was able to keep everyone corralled, keep morale high, stuff like that.
I noticed this album isn’t credited to Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three. What was the reason for that?
I’m building on the personnel. The South City Three kept changing the number of people at different shows, so it was just easier to get back to using my own name. It gives me more freedom with the lineup. My goal is to get a bigger group — a nine-piece group or a 10-piece group that can play everything I want to play. I’m getting there, and now I have a horn section. It adds some texture and can build a song in a way that I previously wasn’t able to do.
Does that make it more fun for you, not having to play the same songs the same way night after night?
Yeah, it just depends on the crowd. That can be a large factor. It can depend on the venue and the sound and your own energy levels, but I don’t want to make any excuses. As soon as you do that, you admit that you’re not in control. Might as well be a man about it and accept responsibility for your own actions.
With that being said, I do have a lot of songs. That’s the hardest part, trying to stay up on all my songs. It’s an honor to go around to so many places and meet so many people who know my music, but then they make requests, and I’m like, “Oh shit, I don’t remember that.” Like last night, I had a request for a song of mine that I hadn’t played in two years, and it’s off that Middle of Everywhere CD, maybe two years or something. But I literally had to look up my own lyrics on the Internet. I’m not ashamed to say it.
Your albums have always addressed themes of travel and transience. This album in particular sounds like it’s concerned with keeping your roots despite being on the road so much.
Traveling has always been a desire of mine from a young age, and it’s a quest I’ve been on ever since. I’ve seen so many places, and I’ve been so many places that it’s hard not to name-drop cities and states and regions. They just sound so pretty, and of course people have been singing about places around America forever. It’s romantic.
Part of that is being influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and early jazz and Tin Pan Alley. But it’s something I’m really evolving with. I’ve been to so many places, but what’s deeper? What’s the common thread between all of these places? Places like St. Louis or Milwaukee or Iowa City, they don’t get representation, so I’m very happy to be a voice from the Midwestern region. In that regard, I feel very different in the music that I’m writing and the way that I’m singing. I’m proud of that.