December 18, 2011

Welcome to the "Middle of Everywhere"

Take a step back with me, would you please?  Back to a time several decades ago, a time that was both simple and yet, in many ways, every bit as complex as those we live in now.  It's a very easy time to romanticize.  The music of that era is very different from what's produced these days-- It's one of the simpler elements of those years and contributes mightily to that sheen of romance, but it's pretty well overlooked by a majority of today's contemporary music listeners.  There are a handful of artists out there, though, who not only appreciate this music but do everything they can to keep it alive and vital.  One of those groups is Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, and I'd like to introduce you to 'em.

I first heard of these fellas via the 7" single they cut for Third Man Records earlier this year--  A tune with the tongue-twisting title "Chitlin' Cookin' Time In Cheatham County", backed with the just as terrific "Pack It Up".  Their vintage look and traditional roots sound got me curious, but one particular recommendation from a conversation at a message board I frequent intrigued me even more-- "[Pokey] inhabits the authentic essence of the old music but carries it on with original lyrics and tunes. imagine alan lomax combining all the dna of american music and injecting it into this slight lad from south st louis..."  That's a kicker, folks.  Few people have done more to preserve and promote true American music than Alan Lomax did throughout his career, so the idea that this group could possibly distill the spirit of Lomax's work within their songs was compelling.  Think of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" embodied by four very young men from St. Louis, Missouri, and you begin, just begin, to get the picture.

So I began reading about them and watching videos here and there (NPR, especially, has a terrific archive of Pokey and SC3 material).  I loved the idea of the group, but didn't quite connect.  Until, that is, I found out that they would be opening for the Raconteurs' first performance in three years at Third Man Records in Nashville in September--  I wanted badly to attend that show just to see the Racs, but had missed the tickets that sold out immediately.  Hemmed and hawed about spending a couple hundred dollars via eBay, plus the price of a plane ticket, and then heard that these guys would be the opening act.  They were the deciding factor, as my gut told me that this was a combination not to be missed.

Well, I'm happy to tell you, my gut was dead right.  Seeing this band live made all the difference in the world.  Their sound is one thing, but their performances are quite another.  They are consummately professional and meticulously talented, both smoothly polished and raucously fun at the same time.  Not to mention, endearing to a fault.  Pokey is a little guy with a huge voice, who plays rhythm on a beautiful old parlor guitar and occasionally hangs an amplified kazoo from his neck to add a snazzy accompaniment to various tunes.

Photo from

Ryan Koenig gives Pokey some serious competition for the spotlight on just about every tune, alternating entertainingly delivered accompanying vocals with some of the most intense harmonica going, then putting down his harp and strapping on his homemade washboard, complete with dishes and a bell, which is fascinating to watch.

Photo from

Photo from

The self-effacingly self-described "rhythm kings" of the band are Adam Hoskins on guitar and Joey Glynn on standup bass.  I'd never seen anyone play standup bass before this band and really looked forward to the experience. Checking out Joey's bass on the stage before the show began at Third Man, I wondered how the heck you got sound out of string like that-- The lower strings looked practically like twine.  When he started slapping away, I was spellbound by the thumping beat he created.

Photo by Corey Warner

But some of my favorite moments came from Adam Hoskins and his gorgeous vintage acoustic guitar.  When he jokingly referred to himself as one of the "rhythm kings" of the band, he was actually way off base.  He plays some of the most beautifully articulate guitar I've yet heard, with perfectly clean technique whether he's finger-picking notes or sliding a bottle-neck along the frets.  (And talk about endearing-- When I saw the band again, as described below, it was mentioned during the show that Adam had just bought himself a $3,000 vintage Gibson.  When I asked him about it afterward, I was struck by not only how eager he was to get it set up and be able to play it live, but also by his comment that it was the first guitar he'd bought himself with money that he'd earned by playing guitar. It was sweet to see just how gratifying this was for him.) 

Photo by Ryan Leith

So I came home from Nashville and immediately ordered a copy of their most recent record, Middle of Everywhere.  The album is terrific.  But, as fun and fantastic as the music is, the attitude behind it is what makes it real and significant, not just a campy bit of fluffy entertainment.  In the liner notes, Pokey talks about just what this style of music means to him--

...When jazz, blues and country took off early on, where the artists came from was as much of the music as the music itself,  that framework giving deep meaning and relevance to what they were saying and playing.  While the old music may have origins in regions and communities, it's been grabbed hold of and evolved as it's spread across America.  For me, the point is to find my place in this changing landscape and continue to express myself speaking the language of the old music while holding on to the roots.

It's that compulsion to keep this music alive rather than just to recreate it that makes it essential listening for anyone who cares about the history of American music.  Even if it's not your bag, it's hard to deny that maintaining that "language of the old music" is a worthwhile undertaking for young contemporary artists like Pokey and the South City fellas.  Like losing any other historic language, for this music that's so rich in history and culture to go extinct would be a sad and unnecessary loss

I followed the show in Nashville a few weeks later with a, get this, free show at Hill Country BBQ in Washington, DC, where I danced, talked to a couple of the boys in the band, and picked up a cd of their earlier record, Riverboat Soul.  The crowd at Hill Country packed the downstairs bar/performance area and was apparently full of friends and long-time fans of the band, and the atmosphere of the over-two-hour long show was joyous.  These boys work hard and seem to enjoy every drop of sweat they put into their performance as much as their audiences do.  If you get the chance to go see 'em, do yourself a favor and do so.  I intend to every chance I get.

Pack It Up at the Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA, a show I would have attended if it hadn't been an hour and a half away and pouring down rain when I left work that night.  Comments from the audience at Hill Country BBQ made me very sorry I'd missed it--

So, now that we've stepped back, let's follow Pokey and the boys and step forward to keep the wonderful traditions of this music alive.  As Pokey says, "We'll see you down the road..."  Let's just hope it's a long one.


The Crow said...

I love visiting here. I have been introduced to more wonderful music and musicians through your blog than any other way.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, KD!

KaliDurga said...

Ah, Martha, I'm so glad that you enjoy the music I post here! I've gotten so much from other people I've met through the music I love, it's wonderful to know that I'm able to pass it further along. And thank you for stopping by!

Shawnte Orion said...

Hey, did you get to see any of those solo acoustic Chris Cornell shows?

KaliDurga said...

I didn't. Been waaaaaay too busy getting into new and new/old music over the last two years, pretty much all the stuff I listened to previously has fallen by the wayside for the time being. Did you?

Shawnte Orion said...

Yes, I was able to go and it was pretty amazing. It was cool to hear some of these old songs that meant so much to me through the years, played in such a different way.