“Things might get kind of weird in the background,” Pokey LaFarge says when he answers the phone for an interview in late June. He’s taken the call, despite being stuck on the highway in Ohio, trying to find a way to get to a gig in Cleveland, because his bright yellow tour bus is now headed for the shop. “Nothing I can do about it,” LaFarge adds, deadpan, sounding a little defeated. “I usually like being on the road.”
Despite the setback, LaFarge has a lot to celebrate this summer. After more than a decade of touring relentlessly and releasing eight albums, he’s now headlining large rooms and getting key slots at roots-minded festivals. LaFarge’s latest record, Manic Revelations, came out in May, and it’s easily his most cohesive effort to date.
Since he emerged in the mid-2000s, much of the focus on LaFarge—birth name Andrew Heissler—has been his retro sound, a revivalist blend of jump blues, western swing, early folk and foundational country. With a look time-hopped from the onset of the Opry and a head-turning lonesome tenor to match, the St. Louis-based tunesmith started as a busker, often playing on street corners in random towns and self-releasing music like his 2006 debut album, Marmalade. For a brief time, he played as a member of the Hackensaw Boys, the Charlottesville-formed string outfit that LaFarge says he “grew up idolizing,” but he ultimately decided to focus on his own songs and started enlisting backup players.
LaFarge’s support on Manic Revelations, the seven-piece Southside Collective, gives his latest album a robust soul-rock edge. Upbeat lead track “Riot in the Streets” has a spry bass line, shiny horn blasts and a steady, dance-ready groove. At first, the celebratory sound makes it tough to realize the song has a serious message; it’s a protest anthem written about the social unrest in LaFarge’s hometown following the shooting of Michael Brown in summer 2014. LaFarge says he was trying to “think about what The Clash would do” when writing the song.
As the album’s 10 tracks progress, more of LaFarge’s thoughts are revealed. He contemplates tumultuous relationships (“Must Be a Reason”), self-improvement (“Better Man Than Me”) and finding peace of mind (“Going to the Country”).
“A lot of the songs were written within a month or two-month period, so I think there are some general working themes,” LaFarge says. “I don’t know how many things are intentional when it comes to songwriting. Life moves pretty fast, so I take it (songwriting inspiration) any way I can get it. I’ve got plenty of notebooks, but there are also scribbles inside pages of novels and on napkins and coasters. It’s all part of the manic state of the writing process.”
In the vintage R&B ballad “Silent Movie,” LaFarge flips the script and sings about giving an anxious brain a rest from the surrounding noise: “I don’t read the papers / don’t watch the news / and if I did, tell me what good would it do?”
“It was written around election time, a direct response to a lot of the noise on social media,” LaFarge says of the song. “I was thinking about children and how they get caught up in the bullshit of future generations.
“It’s hard to know who you’re talking to in a song and what your meaning is. You just kind of follow a feeling and if it helps people out then all the better.”
As LaFarge has stayed focused on his craft, mounting opportunities have increased his time in the spotlight. In 2012 he contributed a song to the soundtrack of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” and the same year he and some of his bandmates played on a track on Jack White’s album Blunderbuss. He also recently tried acting, playing country great Hank Snow in the new CMT series “Sun Records.”
Currently, he’s focused on getting his bus back on the road, so he can finish his summer tour, which ends on the West Coast in August.
This weekend he joins the lineup at Red Wing Roots Music Festival, along with the Americana gala’s nearly 40 acts, including host band The Steel Wheels, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Lake Street Dive, Tim O’Brien, Sarah Jarosz, Mandolin Orange, The Cactus Blossoms and Larry Keel.
“We’re experienced playing everything from fish fries to funerals,” LaFarge says when asked about the increasing size of his crowds. “In the recent past I think it was a challenge to carry our music in front of a large audience, but now we can put a show on anywhere.”