To Pokey LaFarge, "nostalgia" is a misnomer for "quality," and quality never goes out of style.
The St. Louis-based songwriter and his growing acoustic ensemble return to town Friday in high gear on their extended road trip through early 20th century American music.
A new album due in May, LaFarge says, will find them stretching beyond the minimalist string-band sound of the past two award-winning releases, 2010's Riverboat Soul and 2011's Middle of Everywhere.
"It's the realization of a lot of dreams that I've had since I was young, getting close to having something like a Western swing orchestra," says the singer, guitarist and banjoist, just shy of his 30th birthday. "The new album's got a lot of horns on it. It's got a lot of strings on it. It's got a female vocalist backing me up on a couple tunes. It's got a lot more dimensions, so it's able to showcase a different side of my songwriting."
The sound LaFarge strives for is not a throwback so much as a blast from a parallel universe where rural blues, swing, old-time jazz and mountain music melted together in a juke joint fire and spawned some kind of high-octane pre-rock that flourished into the next millennium. He began this trip as a teen in Illinois, when a grandfather turned him on to bluegrass.
"A lot of kids were rebelling by listening to punk rock, but I was rebelling by listening to old-time music," he says. "What I love most about America is the identity and the quality of the things that we put out there into the world. That's what has made me hold even more steadfastly to that early music, just the richness and the quality in it. So it strengthens my resolve to keep pushing it forward. It's an American art form. It's like classical music. That's stuff's been around for hundreds of years. This is our classical music."
On the current tour, which also stops Thursday in Bloomington, LaFarge is fingerpicking a treasured 1946 Epiphone Spartan guitar accompanied by his core band of recent years, the South City Three: Joey Glynn on upright bass Ryan Koenig on harmonica and percussion, and blazing flatpicker Adam Hoskins on acoustic lead guitar. Vocal harmonies and call-and-response are central to the compositions, and the two guitarists often trade licks and share harmonized melody lines.
Brand new to the lineup, however, are T.J. Muller on cornet and Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet, who expand the sound to more accurately reflect the feel of the upcoming album.
"I'm just now getting to play some of the new songs," LaFarge says.
The new record, his fifth full-length studio project, was produced by multi-instrumentalist Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, who brought a fresh songwriting ear to the process and helped hone the material.
"He was really able to challenge me to get down to the nitty gritty of the songs," LaFarge says, "really get down to what it was I was trying to say, and just skim away the stuff that really didn't need to be there."
Another friend to the band has been Jack White, who released a LaFarge seven-inch on his Third Man Records label, had them back a track on his Blunderbuss album, and brought them on last year's Blunderbuss tour for numerous dates. LaFarge is grateful for the endorsement.
"Yeah, it's been huge. I can't say enough about him," he says of White. "When you have somebody like that who comes in and says, 'Hey, this guy's the real deal,' people believe him.'"
As for LaFarge's own pet causes, he considers himself a standard bearer not only for classic American music, but also for the Midwest's contributions to the catalog. He says the nation's heartland - - Indiana included - - should take a little more credit, not only for undisputed legends like Bloomington's Hoagy Carmichael but also for underappreciated pioneers like the '20s-'30s Indianapolis blues duo of guitarist Scrapper Blackwell and pianist Leroy Carr.
"People think, 'Oh, it's always Southern music,'" he says. "But you know, (jazz pioneer) Bix Beiderbecke came from Iowa. (Western swing star) Tex Williams was from Illinois. And people say jazz was strictly a New Orleans thing - - and maybe the origins were, in the Teens - - but in the '20s, it was a Chicago thing."
"When people come to the States, they go to New York or California or Florida, but that's not the real America," he adds. "I'm proud to come from the Midwest."