Willi Carlisle and Willy Tea Taylor | Sunday, March 12 at 8 p.m. | The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham | $15
Willi Carlisle is a man of many angles. Call him a folk singer, a raconteur, a humorist, a poet, or a punk, and you’re speaking equal amounts of truth. Thoughtful and impulsive, hilarious and heart-wrenching, bluntly profane and profusely kind, the Ozark native—born in Missouri, now residing in northwest Arkansas—has spent the last decade perfecting a raucous blend of old-time tradition and modern vernacular.
His best songs bounce between belly laughs and tearjerkers, just as the virtuosic Carlisle glides between acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, accordion, and harmonica. Potent quotables litter the lyric sheets of his three albums—2016’s Too Nice to Mean Much, 2018’s To Tell You the Truth, and 2022’s Peculiar, Missouri. But it’s the wild-eyed emotion baked into his baritone boom that has Carlisle catapulting to success.
Early singles like “Cheap Cocaine” and “Boy Howdy, Hot Dog!” celebrated the unhinged side of Americana, but Carlisle flipped that script with a compelling mix of originals and arrangements on last year’s release on Free Dirt Records. He voices complicated queer desire on “Life on the Fence,” authentic acceptance on “Your Heart’s a Big Tent,” and the tragicomedy of the open road on “Vanlife.”
He charts a neurodivergent performer’s poignant rise and fall on “Tulsa’s Last Magician” while retrofitting everything from conjunto classics to cosmic cowboy laments and the absurdist verse of e. e. cummings. He even anchors Peculiar, Missouri with a titular seven-minute talking blues about suffering a panic attack in the cosmetics aisle of a midwestern Walmart.
Carlisle’s sharp character studies reshape the way we view America’s misfits—those tender hearts and tough cases so often left behind while struggling to learn to love themselves. It’s an iconoclasm that comes easy for the former football player turned theater nerd, who makes it clear that you can revere rural life while rebuking its revanchist tendencies—and celebrate urban inclusivity while bemoaning its performative radicalism.
But all this brainy folk-geek arcana buries the lede about Willi Carlisle: he’s one of the most dynamic live artists operating in America today. Last year, he was playing house shows and dive bars, admitting in a moving personal essay for No Depression that “down and out is only a few mistakes away in this profession.”
This year, he’s selling out midsize venues on a marathon two-month run, even as his concerts promise live-show fellowship and communalism. Ahead of his March 12 stop in Durham, INDY Week caught up with Willi Carlisle on the telephone one Friday afternoon in February as he prepared for his whirlwind tour.
INDY WEEK: How are you getting ready for the road, Willi? You’ve said you don’t like to take days off.
WILLI CARLISLE: Well, last night I was up all night. I have not yet gone to sleep. I was working on the next record—I’m in the studio. There’s a song on it that’s an epic—it might even be seven or eight minutes long. [It’s] a bad man ballad that’s a true story. We did some interviews, talked to some strangers, heard some gossip, and read a couple books about this marijuana moonshiner in rural Arkansas maybe 20 years ago. So yeah, I should be getting ready for tour, but you know what? That’s a form of getting ready. We’ll stuff our clothes into a bag right before we head out the door [laughs].
That’s a perfect example of how you interpret older folk traditions through a contemporary lens. Has that blend of the old and the new changed as you’ve grown?
That’s a great question. Thank you for it. Me and my buddies used to just sing the Pete Seeger songbook cover to cover. I also used to just play old-time music, period. If it wasn’t old-time fiddle music, it was like, “What are you playing? What is this garbage Americana music?” And then I started to play something closer to Americana a year, maybe two years, before Jason Isbell made Southeastern [in 2013]—before one of the other Americana booms we keep having.
So it has been really twisty, and the combination comes out differently every time. A lot of times it comes down to a right-hand or left-hand technique, or a chord voicing being more strictly traditional or more modern sounding. I try to do a little bit of both every time. There are always a few folk songs that I’m obsessed with that find their way into the lexicon. If you sing “Skip to My Lou” 10,000 times, eventually you’re gonna write a song that goes, “Da da-da-da da-DUH.” I’ve got my finger in the new and old as often as I can.
You can take melodies that feel so primitive—like, for instance, Clarence Ashley’s 1929 version of “The Coo Coo Bird,” which you turned into “The Cuckoo” on your 2018 album To Tell You the Truth—and make them sound so modern.
I’m no Clarence Ashley. I remember the first time I heard the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music [originally released in 1952]. The social dance [record], you know, I really thought, “What is this garbage? Who could possibly listen to this?” Especially the Cajun stuff that was on there. And now I can’t get enough. It really is funny how you get used to a melody, and then suddenly you begin to hear it everywhere. Even if it’s not a cover, [it] is the same modal scale or whatever.
How about your craft as a songwriter? You did get an MFA in poetry, so you’re probably used to the workshop model. How has that changed for you over the years?
Damn. Another good question. I do everything. I did poetry in school, [but] I don’t always love to give it as the byline. If somebody says, “Guy with grad degree in poetry decides to become a folk singer,” that’s a lie. I went to grad school for poetry because I wanted to be a folk singer and didn’t know what else to do. I did a lot of workshops. I also have had a commonplace book ever since I was maybe 14 [years old]. And it’s really messy. I’ve tried to switch online a little bit, to iPad and phone, but what it ends up being is handwritten journals, pocket journals, sticky notes.
A concise way to say this is that some songs take years to germinate based around random notes in commonplace books that eventually coalesce by accident around a melody. Or they’re the intentional work of a few days or even just a few minutes of manic energy that occur unbidden—that we get lucky to have. I think I’ve done just about everything.
Some people do uppers, and some people go to the gym. I will take a walk, and then slug a whole pot of coffee, and then do too many push-ups, and then take a four-hour nap, and then… yeah. Just trying to keep myself interested. I tend to work on other hobbies, too. I fix accordions, and I like to read about things totally unrelated to folk music. I’m very disorganized in that way.
Different types of inspiration probably emerge from those different experiences.
Yeah. Some of it has to be grit, too. You have to get in your own way—and let other people get in your way. Which is to say, you need to be interrupted. There needs to be too little time [laughs]. It really helps when there’s a deadline for me.
Let’s talk about performance style and stage confidence. You clearly know how to command an audience. How long did it take you to reach that point—and how much self-doubt and uncertainty did you have to push through to get there?
My parents wanted me to go to business school because they said I had a line of shit a mile long and an inch deep. I was always doing the classic performer kid thing where you realize that if you’re funny or charming, you can get love. To tell the truth? That’s scary. That’s the part that’s always been hard. It was way easier to write it down than to say it without rehearsing it.
So, for me right now, it’s just trying to stay surprised and stay interested. Stay off-balance so that the truth is still real, and it’s not just some truth-y shit that I’ve grown accustomed to saying. Actually be honest and maintain a purpose—a “why” for being there. Usually, that “why” is in search of excellent energy and maybe some equity and togetherness at its most hoity-toity.
I hope I don’t go on too long, but something that’s really helped me is that I love vaudeville and silent films and clowns and stuff. I say this a lot, “I like clowns,” and it gets written up because that seems surprising. But all humorists are interested in this kind of thing, and clowns reached me at the right time. [There’s] something about people that can make you laugh without saying anything—something about being able to command an audience just by doing something stupid. And then also creating some deep pathos with that is really striking to me. I’m informed by the calculated stupidity, I guess.
You toured a one-man folk operetta called “There Ain’t No More” to fringe festivals around the country, so you’re clearly not afraid of challenging people, either.
I’m not afraid of that kind of thing. I like that I have theater in my blood and that I’ve worked on it a lot. Because in theater, you make a whole world, right? Sometimes in music, for whatever reason, we believe that just creating the sound is enough. And I like to build a whole damn thing. That’s what makes the truth real, if you try to bring the whole of yourself, right? Whew! I don’t know. That’s pretty heady. I don’t know if I believe that [laughs]. I’ll tell you what does scare me is performing for kids. They can tell instantaneously if it doesn’t have that slap or whatever. I’m just trying to use kids’ lingo.
You’ve admitted to code-switching for different audiences in different places—say, celebrating your rural Arkansas life when you play in New York or talking about climate justice and systemic racism when you play in small-town America. Will that continue as your tours and your audiences get bigger?
You know, I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to the point where I get some flak and that some people just want me to shut up. I’m learning that some words are literally just so infuriating. Like, on one side, the word “Antifa,” or, on the other side, “Blue lives matter.” I’m trying to lean away from being actively inflammatory—unless I’m making fun of the audience that I’m front of in good faith.
We all are here to get along. I do think that there’s a shitload of misunderstanding and that everybody has so much more in common than they have apart. That’s really common to say. It’s often meme-ified. But when we’re talking about folk music, everybody has access to their history—to a vernacular that they’ve been deprived of by the moneyed interests of corporations that want you to buy who you are instead of just being that thing.
Even leftist ideas about authenticity as coinciding with a form of identity politics are marketable norms that people want to establish in order to corner certain areas. Like a company that deals with Halliburton quite regularly will sponsor a Pride float, right? Or a queer festival that’s hosted by Ticketmaster—because Ticketmaster’s partially owned by Saudi oil rigs—is also complicit in this shit. Which is to say that… Oh my God, like I said, I haven’t slept Nick, I’m sorry.
It’s great, Willi, keep going!
When we get convinced that somebody is really against us, we can get our heckles up. I want our explorations of history to look with revision and revulsion and reverence at old things with an eye toward taking them on fully. Loving your grandfather and being like, “And he also said this,” right? These reckonings that happen internally—especially if you can sing them—I personally find that healing, revealing, and wonderful. It’s something that I want to be able to give to people.
So yeah, I will absolutely code switch. But that’s because in New York City I’ve been at a poetry reading where somebody finds out I’m from Arkansas—somebody that would be incredibly offended at half of my jokes—and asks me if I fuck pigs or own shoes. I’ve also, oppositely, [heard], “You’re a communist and I’m surprised you don’t have blue hair.” There’s just no reason for any of us to put up with any of that shit. I want to tease everybody about it. I find it really fun. Especially as a huge white guy, I’m not afraid of anybody, and I don’t have to be. I want to use that as a superpower instead of a blind spot.
I wonder what kind of commentary you’d deliver on North Carolina, a Southern state where rural reverence, deep musical history, and rapid urbanization often rub shoulders—many times at the same concert.
To start off, I owe a huge amount to a good number of incredible North Carolina traditional musicians. That goes as far back as the Harry Smith Anthology as well as to people who were kind to me like David Holt [host of the NC PBS series Folkways], who does a marvelous Fred Cockerham interpretation. North Carolina is also one of the only states besides Arkansas and Tennessee where I can find square dances with any regularity—well, and Minnesota, oddly enough, and Louisiana.
As far as that mixture goes, it is wild as hell. In Asheville, for example, I’ve got somebody who accidentally saw Tyler Childers when he was just starting out in my audience, and it was that experience that got him hooked on Americana. And then there’s somebody else there who comes up and says, “This is our first concert in town.”
One of the things that happens when gentrification occurs is that people start doing NIMBY-ism. They don’t want there to be a big public park and a bunch of public transportation directly on top of their apartment. Or public amenities change and nobody wants the homeless nearby. Or people continue to get displaced. Or God, in Raleigh, it’s like all these weird high-rises downtown—miniature downtowns springing up all over downtown, with only chain [restaurants].
A beautiful thing about North Carolina is that all the venues are old. Going to a concert that isn’t at an arena, you’re getting a cross-section of interested and interesting people. It is one of the places—it’s taken me a while to get here, and I apologize for that—where there actually is, quite naturally, a plurality of people. Whereas playing in San Francisco, not a single person there was in an income bracket that I can understand [laughs]. I actually feel like I can be myself in North Carolina.
It’s the same show as I do at home in Arkansas. I don’t have to do that code switch really hard. Honestly, I would live in the Triangle—or just outside the Triangle, ‘cause I couldn’t afford to live in it—if I wasn’t already in a very quickly gentrifying Southern area on the outskirts of town where I am in Northwest Arkansas.
Tatiana Hargreaves is one of your labelmates on Free Dirt Records. Do you know her well?
She is just about the best. I do not know a better fiddle player. My favorite record last year was Mama’s Broke’s Narrow Line, but only because they’re political punks in didactic ways that Allison [de Groot] and Tatiana don’t have to be. They’re just doing it rhetorically with a whole style of music. I mean, the things that they’re doing, I’m blown away. They’re so good. And Tatiana is becoming a librarian and an archivist! What bigger gift could you give with your ability to know hundreds of fiddle tunes and play them perfectly than work at a library and help people find stuff?
What gift do you hope to bestow on the next generation of folk musicians who may look to you for that kind of inspiration? Especially as 2023 really feels like a pivotal year for the development of your career. How are you dealing with that, and how have your future plans changed because of it?
The growing pains for me have been real. I can’t always respond to every message. I was so proud for years that I got back to every email. I’m changing gears instead. If I can’t respond to every email, what I can do is a pay-what-you-can songbook so that anybody who really wants to learn the songs can. I’m making zines to sell at shows because I want to be able to talk to people more. It used to [be I] was just trying to write to get something off my chest. Now I feel like I get to do it because I can be of service to people, and that’s a huge honor. That’s what makes me hungry.
The growing pains also have to do with the BS, which is that every person in the industry that isn’t literally an artist is a parasite. It can get exhausting working around that. I’m very lucky. I have managers now, and I’ve even waited for them to do something—to make a comment about a piece of my work and see if their guiding hand comes in. See if the hand of the market just sort of accidentally falls into this batch of songs. And they’ve literally been like, “What are you doing? Why are you waiting for us to say something?” There’ve been green flags, but that doesn’t mean that the red flags won’t emerge. I should answer your question, Nick, and I’ll stop apologizing—that’s my way of apologizing without doing it.
But to answer your question directly, in the next couple of years, I want to make a couple more records. The next one is going to be darker and, I think, more intense. More heavily in the direction of folk music with a capital F. Then I hope to follow that up with a record that is more country with a capital C, then Americana with a capital A. I want to continue to be a shapeshifter. I want to keep keeping it weird. I want to make music that people have to actually engage with—not something that’s just catchy. Which I know limits your audience immediately. And that’s OK.
I want to build community. I got to see this [touring] with Amigo the Devil, where he’s got a room full of people saying, “We are absolutely not all in a cult together.” I watched people use this as a backbone to their social lives that’s one of those third places that we keep getting divested of in late capitalism. You gotta spend $3.50 to be at the Starbucks so you’re not at home or at work, but you also can go to this thing for a modest ticket price and have it really be a mixer for new friends and family.
Seeing that done practically, that’s the thing I’d like to build the most—and try to have it be based around compassion and mutual aid. I hope I can figure that aspect out. Who knows? It may just be that I’m alienating the general public. We’ll see.
Is there a folk tradition you’ve dabbled in where you thought, “I just can’t master this one”?
Oh Lord, God. So many. I cannot play Swedish music with any facility, especially on the fiddle. On the button box, I find it very difficult, too. I really love conjunto and norteño, but I don’t have the chops, and my language skills are too poor to really interpret it. I’m working on it, but it’s the kind of problem that a Cajun performer who’s never been to Louisiana has. And I want to rectify it with visits.
The way that I learn is by apprenticeship, so there’s lots of traditions that I have an interest in that I haven’t undertaken practical apprenticeships in so that my knowledge feels deep enough to be comfortable. I’m just now, for example, like, “Ooh, Round Peak fiddling!” [from Mt. Airy, NC]. Because for years I was like, “I am interested in Southern Missouri and Boston Mountain string band music,” right? Keeping it hyper-local or focusing on one player or one mentor. I also don’t really understand contra dancing. A lot of people find that really easy. I like square dances, not contra dances.
“Este Mundo” is a pretty good take on conjunto. I feel like we’ll one day hear Willi Carlisle’s full conjunto album—with a capital C.
That would be so cool! That really is a dream. It’s what I listen to at home, honestly. I’m too crazy about it. You get me on a diatribe and we’ll never stop.
As an interviewer, I wouldn’t mind that. One last question, about identity. You’ve been vocal about creating a more inclusive space for people traditionally excluded from folk and country music. But you’ve also said, “I don’t enjoy saying I’m queer in public other than to show others that it can be normal.” Given the opportunity, how would you define yourself today?
A friend of mine interviewed Ramblin’ Jack Elliott a bunch, and he said, “I’m a bullshit artist.” I’m comfortable writing down “bullshit artist,” then crossing it out and writing “folk singer” above it. That’s where I hope to leave it. That’s what I hope ends up on my tombstone.
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