Black Deer Festival Interview: Willi Carlisle talks about Arkansas and his musical heritage

Credit:: Nick Barber

A tale of paternal  lederhosen and Cheap Suit Serenaders and a love of writing.

In the third of our Black Deer Festival interviews, I spoke to the fascinating and hugely talented Willi Carlisle. His appearance at last year’s Black Deer Festival, where he all but stole the show, introduced many in the UK to his unique talents for the first time. This year he was back again attracting large and enthusiastic crowds at each of his festival appearances. Willi also released his third album ‘Peculiar, Missouri’ last year. A mixture of traditional folk styles it was an absolute triumph featuring in many 2022 album of the year lists and topping my own personal list. Willi was very generous with his time and happy to talk about anything and pretty much everything which provided for a fascinating interview offering a real insight into the man and his music.

I’d like to start by asking you what this festival has meant to you over the last two years? I think most people coming here last year probably hadn’t heard of you at that time, but you took the place by storm and people went away talking about you. I guess that must have had a knock-on effect on your appearances this year.

Yes, it’s been an honour. It’s meant some access, and by access what I really mean is just the ability to build a little bit on another continent, on an island far away from Turtle Island [the name given to North America by some indigenous peoples]. I believe in organic growth in this business. I think the music industry is ugly and I think a lot of music is bad for your spirit, a little bit in the same way as bad religion. It’s good to have religion, it’s probably better to have some religion than none, some belief than none, some music than none and some might be more pure of heart than others and I think one of the only pure of heart things that there is in this world, at the risk of digressing immediately, is to build things organically out of things that you’ve learned from humans and to try and do it with joy and equanimity, and this has been a good opportunity to do it. Playing on a pretty small stage and having people really crowd around means that it can be participatory, there’s not a bunch or gates or anything. That then transfers very nicely to the shows here, in Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds or Bristol, or everywhere else that we’re playing where the shows really are pretty intimate because the clubs are intimate.

I was at the Manchester show the other night. It was a fabulous show and I think that it’s nice that you have now reached that stage where you can do those shows around the country and that there’s enough people out there who want to see you play. It was a small venue in Manchester, but it was sold out.

Right, it sold out really quickly too. It was fun to work with Melissa [Carper] too. There’s a lot of people in the new country and americana sphere that I massively respect, their outlook and their reasons for making music. It’s not just artistic and not didactically political, but instead, it’s just a nice mixture of the way you want the world to be ideally, a mixture of idealism and then craftsman; country and folk music as a discipline. There’s enough classical music out there and there’s enough innovation, enough experimental music, what we have is a discipline. Like a carpenter, not like a painter.

How did the link-up with Black Deer, Arkansas and bringing you guys over come about?

I don’t know, I stay out of the internecine as much as I can.

So, when was the first time that you were asked?

Dylan Earl talked to me about it and we looked into it and we were immediately excited that we could have a chance because every time we get a chance, it goes well and every little door that opens a little bit pretty much goes well and we haven’t hit a brick wall yet.

I think what you as a group of musicians are doing has certainly challenged some perceptions of Arkansas. People in Britain probably don’t know too much about it, but perceptions might be that it’s quite conservative, quite evangelical and even small-minded, but obviously, there’s another side to it?

It is conservative, it is evangelical and small-minded, but I guess I get a little frosty, because so is the UK. One thing we have to do because we’re from a place like that and we’re part of it, is we have to actively interface with ideology. We can’t say to people that you’re my enemy, we have to find ways to enlist them, find ways to reach them and these are often people who have been deprived of social and civic services for sometimes generations. It’s nobody’s fault that they have beliefs that we would now consider retrograde when they haven’t had any practical reason to update such a belief and when they are categorically lied to by media companies and encouraged to create divisive material. There are still places in Arkansas where the internet is fairly new, let alone being able to walk into a pharmacy and get the life-saving medicine that you need, and I could go on. It needs to be powerful; for people to have strong beliefs and for people to be proud of who they are and where they’re from. I think that the leftist culture of shaming people is not a big tent, is not a big union, and it’s not what they wanted to do with the IWW. It’s not what any good populist movement has ever done.

So yes, we hope to change impressions about Arkansas. I wasn’t born there, but I fell in love there immediately twelve years ago because the contrast between people that I can immediately get along with and people that I would have to work to get along with was stark that I wanted to learn from all of them because they had something that most people don’t get to possess, and that is access to their oral histories, some sense of ancestral memory, where they’ve been and where they’re going. At its best, some strong sense of intention of how and why to live that isn’t nearly as influenced by corporate capitalism, because it just doesn’t reach its tendrils out there as often.

That’s quite a courageous thing to say in that kind of environment. Do you get people pushing back against it?

I think if people think what I’m saying is bullshit, they probably don’t think I’m worth the time to fight with. I do worry about preaching to the choir, actually, I hope for more arguments, I really do. If I’m not getting any arguments, I worry a little bit. As far as being a folk singer, it’s important to make a little fun of every audience, make fun of myself, because none of its that serious.

Moving on to the music. ‘Peculiar, Missouri’, how did that come about? Were those songs you’d had for a while, or did you write specifically for the album?

Both. The title track which is like a seven minute long talking-blues about the city of Peculiar, Missouri, came to me in a dream. I wanted to write a song that was based on a dream and I’d never done it. The dream was really simple, I was in a van with a kind stranger, and we were driving across the border, and that’s it. I wanted to push the envelope of my own work, do a big variety of things, a grab-bag of different traditions, pull from old-time music, cajun music, conjunto music which is like tex-mex music, stuff like that.

And it comes across beautifully. I saw you for the first time here at Black Deer Festival and I was telling other people about you and an AUK colleague of mine Graeme Tait said “That Willi Carlisle you keep on about, I’ve just been sent his album to review and it’s amazing” I don’t know if you ever got to see it, but he wrote an absolutely glowing review of the album. It also featured highly in our Top Albums of 2022 list, so you certainly have some fans at AUK.

I really appreciate that. I was really nervous about it.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

The things I’m most excited about are, I’m playing a festival called Dusty Boots in Colorado. I cast a cold eye on large-scale festivals because they seem to me to be sometimes more like refugee crises than music experiences. That said this Dusty Boots Festival is a lot of I guess what we call ‘Y’alternative’, queer country acts, stuff like that and that’s one club that I don’t mind having a membership card to. So that will be really interesting in Colorado to see what kind of groups of people that brings out. It’s nice to take a pulse of what americana looks like and then to be in a big city on the front range, like Denver and to see what it looks like will be really cool. I’m really proud to also be doing the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival this year, which is focusing on the Ozarks. I’m only doing a little set and I wasn’t born in the Ozarks but I have been there for a long time. I’m going to talk about some stuff that I learned on stage at a National Folk Life Festival, that’s a huge thing for me – I could die happy after that. Then after that, in the same month, I’m doing the Newport Folk Festival which is where Bob Dylan made the mistake of going electric. Pete Seeger founded it. He’s the guy that invented this profession in my mind. My plan is to do a huge singalong just like the old days when I wasn’t around and see what happens with it.

Where did all this love of folk music come from? Was it in your family or something that you picked up yourself? Also, you’re a multi-instrumentalist, what came first and how did it progress?

I started playing guitar first. I wanted to play in punk bands but also my father was a musician, he played everything from classical trumpet as an adult to rowdy bluegrass bands. He worked, you know back in the sixties and seventies in rural Kansas you could work a dance circuit. You could play a high school prom one night then go play the American Legion the next night and then on your Sunday you could pick up a restaurant gig and then you drive back home. You know you’d hit Hays, Kansas, Salina, Kansas and go back to Wichita. Not exactly big shakes but working musicians’ stuff right. He did that but also as a kid, he played tuba and wore lederhosen in a trad Polish and German band.

That big diaspora was part of my life but also what would have been popular to an eccentric musician in Kansas in the seventies and eighties was on our record player and a lot of that was what we might now call americana, stuff like The Band, R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, Leon Redbone and a lot of cheesy blues stuff and cowboy material. I got into it when I wasn’t supposed to. We weren’t supposed to touch the record player. That was a special thing I got to do when I was alone in the house. In a crowded house that was pretty rare so it was special to me. That’s more or less how I got into it. By the time I was a kid, he wasn’t really playing any more. It was a legend of party days, so that’s what I wanted to have, my own party days.

In the various descriptions of what you are and who you are, it says folk singer, songwriter, but also playwright and poet. Can you tell us a bit more about that side of you.

I always wanted to be a writer, I thought that I would be a writer first and foremost, but I actually think that I like showbiz too much. I like the BS, I like the get-ups, I think it’s fun and I feel more like myself, and writing can be really solitary. I chased it pretty far. I did a master’s degree in writing but if I’m honest it was because I didn’t know what to do. I needed to get out of the house for a lot of difficult personal reasons. Every teenager has to leave home, right? I went to a liberal arts school as I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind. So, I way overpaid to hang out with a class of people that were kind of the burgeoning new left, that couldn’t talk about where their parents’ money was from but could by God put on a good show of being guilty for who they were. Which is to say people I felt critical of and didn’t feel that comfortable with. That said, the little education that I was able to get in poetry and literature was essentially like a classical education and I enjoyed the shit out of that. It was so much fun to read for a living and to party with brilliant people who’d been going to private school their whole lives.

It felt like a whole other world. As far left as I may seem that was one of those places where I felt like I was pretty conservative, maybe a little less relaxed. I decided to go to grad school because I didn’t know what to do. I was selling drugs and a buddy got arrested and was just suffering. He was under a burden that he could not shake, so I applied to grad school out of nowhere because I was just taking shots in the dark. I wasn’t a good student, I didn’t have good grades but on the quality of twelve poems, the University of Arkansas and the University of West Virginia both were willing to give me teaching fellowships. There should have been a mental health questionnaire, but it was between those two places, and I had a banjo and fiddle teacher picked out at each one and that was kind of how I made the decision. If I was honest, I was just trying to figure out who I wanted to work with and I ultimately picked Arkansas to work with the banjo player there.

Is writing something that you wish to continue with in future?

Oh yeah, last year I published an essay in No Depression that I was really proud of and I write all the time. I’m not sure I’ve found my form yet but I’m hoping it’s non-fiction and I’d like to publish a book of essays. I put out a songbook, and you know it’s self-publishing, but I don’t really care. I don’t believe in big publishing or big labels. I think human scale is important and the songbook has stories behind the songs. I think it’s about five hundred now and it came out in May so it was nice to have people want to read the things that I’d written and want to know more stuff. I guess the reason that I mentioned the number is because if nobody wanted to read it, I probably wouldn’t write it. I want to be able to reach people which is actually why I wanted to be a folk singer. I got tired of the insular and the experimental world of poetry.

You say that if people didn’t read your work, you wouldn’t write it. However, you do get people who say that they write only for themselves and it doesn’t matter if nobody reads it. Do you think that’s false?

It’s hard to say not knowing the motivations and values of others. There are plenty of things I’ve written for myself and wondering if they will catch with other people is a part of the craft that I may never understand. To go entirely inwards feels not generous enough.

On a slightly more light-hearted note. Can I ask about the video for ‘Van life’ It’s absolutely brilliant, where did that come from?

Honestly, me and my buddy Mike from Western AF, we had three days and Mike was real tired and we had production meetings scheduled because I was kind of like “We’re going to be professionals about this”. We have a budget and I’ve got these ideas and Mike, like many of us that are self-employed was just totally overwhelmed. So, I sat in a motel room in Topeka and made a list of bad ideas. So, it’s a collection of vignettes basically and we just filmed them over the course of three days by literally driving the van around, he hopped out and we did it. The aerial shot with all the vans going in a circle, we had so many choreography plans, we wanted it to be like those old-timey movies above the swimmers or something, like when their legs are popping up and there’s a flower and so on. But we were all drunk and we could go in a circle and that was about it. All ten vans in that video we called that day, so basically, we shot out to the city of Laramie, Wyoming and did it.

The falling out of the van at the end was that a genuine accident or was it staged? It certainly looked real.

Yes I got a concussion and the doctor said “Don’t fly” and I said “I’m on a plane tomorrow” and he said “Well OK”, so I may be permanently damaged (laughs).

Lastly, and this is kind of our standard finishing question. You’ve been at the festival and obviously elsewhere. Has there been anyone that’s caught your eye during that time.

We stayed up and picked until four in the morning last night. There’s a County Clare fiddler named Sian who is just a tradition bearer and person here picking, not like a festival performer. We’ve formed a friendship with Sian. Her willingness to sit and teach us sets of tunes very quickly was amazing. So, it’s not like a big-time answer. It was amazing to see Bonnie Raitt. Kurt Vile was entertaining, seeing him with his extended catalogue was brand new for me. I really love Jaime Wyatt, Brennen Leigh, and Melissa Carper. As far as the music I expected to love, absolutely but sets of jigs, reels and hornpipes, man is not something in my musical lexicon and getting to encounter that from an experienced fiddle player, who couldn’t care less if there was a microphone was really revealing and I feel like a better way to get to know a musical tradition and hopefully a way of knowing a place.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to AUK readers before we finish?

I’ve got another album coming out, hopefully this year. I’m really excited about it.

All self-penned?

Yeah. It’s different from ‘Peculiar’ but I think it’s my best writing.

What’s it going to sound like?

Thanks for asking. Thank you for that (laughs). I haven’t formulated a pitch for it. It’s just the songs at the moment, nice and fresh. I have been thinking about depths of despair. I’ve been thinking about losing people to Fentanyl and street drugs and suicide and that’s not really summertime hits but it’s a folk music record that’s serious and pretty grounded. The last record got to be grounded and I really liked that it could be grounded in tradition. This one is grounded but the stakes somehow went through the roof. I think all it took was writing about the people I was thinking about who I had lost or almost lost.

Willi Carlisle’s ‘Peculiar, Missouri’ is out now on Free Dirt Records.

About Clint West 325 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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