When he was in high school, like many of his peers Pokey LaFarge had an itch to be rebellious. While his classmates expressed that same urge through raunchy rap, hardcore metal, and riotous punk rock, young Pokey instead went old-school. Instead of digging LL Cool J, Ozzie Osborne or The Clash, he was diving headfirst into Bob Wills, Blind Boy Fuller, and Jimmie Rodgers.
During a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter discussed the roots of his fascination with early roots music. "I read a lot of early American literature, which painted some pictures and increased my interest. My grandfather was a bit of a historian, both of my grandfathers, actually. They raised me up on that stuff.
"I rebelled and sought out something from the past. Looking back on it now, I think it has been a constant in my life, trying to find something with sustainability, something of quality, something honest," he said.
LaFarge’s distinctive voice and original songs breathe new life into the pre-World War II genres of string ragtime, western swing, country blues and vintage jazz. And he has been able to build an ever-growing audience that hungers for that very sustainability, quality and honesty that drew him to this music in the first place.
"People are fed a lot of garbage out there and don’t have time to sift through it to find what else is out there. They want to be
LaFarge’s career got a huge boost after Jack White (White Stripes, The Raconteurs) heard Pokey on a Nashville radio station, White was impressed enough to invite Pokey and his band into the studio to cut some tracks and later do some touring together. "I don’t know if it’s because he’s got a high-pitched voice, kinda like mine is." said LaFarge, who is from St. Louis. "But there are other factors, such as some of the rawness, the organic nature and simplicity of the material. It has been a great relationship. Of course, we have been opening a lot of shows for him. It has been a boost for my creativity and my growth as an artist, but it also has been great for business"
Another effective way for an upcoming artist who is somewhat out of the box to add new fans is through festivals. LaFarge and his band The South City Three gained listeners exponentially at such high profile festivals such as the Big Chill Festival (UK), the Tonder Festival (Denmark) and the 2010 Newport Folk Music Festival, where Spin Magazine tabbed them "Best Discovery."
LaFarge is bound to add even more new followers this Saturday at The Green River fest in Greenfield, Mass. with his century-old approach. "You’ll basically see a jazz band without horns, a western swing band without lap steel and fiddle. We do the most we can do with four musicians. If you like dancing or some deep blues stuff, if you like western swing, or some smooth crooner-style stuff where I put it all out there, it is definitely good summertime festival music, that’s for sure."
The Green River Festival runs Saturday and Sunday on the grounds of Greenfield Community College. Headliners include The Guthrie Family, Ozomatli, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson. Complete event information is available by calling 413-773-5463, or visiting www.greenriverfestival.com.
Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.