Willi Carlisle’s Operating System: “Let’s Be Close”
You don’t often meet recording and performing artists who aspire to not be part of huge shows, but intimacy is a foundational value for folk singer and storyteller Willi Carlisle. “Every time I see a stadium size show, or like an arena size show, I think that's a refugee crisis. That's not a concert,” Carlisle says, firing off one of the funniest lines in the history of The String.
“I have no personal relationship to any of that,” he continues. “You can't pay me to have a personal relationship. I want to hold my music and my people close. My argument for folk music in general is like, let's be close. Let's be a part of that river that says, this is bigger than me, but I'm a really important part of this. And we can all do it together. If we'll just cooperate a little bit.”
It’s idealistic and, by the measures of our neoliberal age, beautifully naive. And it’s part of what makes Carlisle one of the most compelling and disarming young troubadours in the country. On his superb 2022 album Peculiar, Missouri, he’s empathetic, insightful, poignant and a little profane. On stage, he’s boisterous and whimsical and tender, a songster and raconteur in the lineage of Steve Goodman and Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie.
“I really like vaudeville. I don't mind a Branson show. I also really like puppets and masks and stuff. I want there to be something childish,” Willi said when I asked him about how he found his performance style. “I learned a lot from clowns. That'll sound ridiculous, but I really did, and they have these ideas about like (the) edge of balance - being on the edge of your ability, about always going in two directions. If you're gonna go very far in one direction, always go very far in the other. Something about there always being a feeling that the whole thing is about to fall apart, gives me a lot of life.”
That life’s had three chapters, he says: ten years in Kansas where most of his family is rooted; about the same length of time in Illinois where his mom moved pursuing work; then the move to the state he’s lived ever since and where he attended the competitive creative writing program at the University of Arkansas. But along that seemingly straight path, Carlisle (a self-described “angry young man”) lived a life of paradoxes and exploration - high school football, medieval folk music, punk rock, poetry and theater. In college he had some transformative experiences at square dances and found himself drawn to the world of old-time music.
“It was the creation of this total enveloping social atmosphere that is really rare,” he says of the square dance epiphany. “How often do you get that moment where you've got all of your people. You've got many loved ones. It's mail call, and it's roll call. It's How's your mom and ‘em? It's also functionally like a pie contest, you know, or like a potluck. It's also vernacular music exchanged by ear between people. It's also getting to hold hands with everybody. And it's like a sonorous, dionysian experience, which is to say, it's a goddang hoedown. And I just wanted to be a part of that kind of thing.”
This is how Willi Carlisle talks, even offstage, and it’s quite spellbinding. So is the way he writes songs. On his breakout album of 2022, Peculiar, Missouri, he composes in a variety of styles from honky tonk to conjunto to spoken word ballad while conjuring imagery and characters that seem to occupy space in front of the listener. “Vanlife,” a single and rollicking video, takes us inside the life of a road warrior troubadour through lines delivered at breakneck speed. The accordion-fueled “Este Mundo” is a nostalgic slice of borderlands life with scary overtones about water and corporatism. “I Won’t Be Afraid” is a new classic folk singalong with a proudly profane chorus. But my favorite is “Tulsa’s Last Magician,” a melancholy life story told over eleven stanzas with heartbreaking lines that would have had Townes Van Zandt shaking his hand.
Carlisle embarks on his Peculiar Spring Tour on Feb. 21 in Columbia, MO and heads to dozens of dates from New England to Colorado to Texas.