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You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry Attending John Craigie’s ‘Pagan Church’

Bobby Cochran

“Growing up in the 1990s, music was very serious,” songwriter John Craigie says in Episode 285 of the String. “I went to shows a lot as a kid, and I didn't see anyone being funny on stage.” He makes a good point. Grunge and post-grunge indie rock and even Lilith Fair folk were nothing if not earnest - more about weight than wit. But then Craigie had a revelation at an Arlo Guthrie show.

“I had been writing songs that were serious, and being serious during open mics or whatever,” he says. “But I saw Arlo. And I saw someone do both.” Guthrie sang meaningful songs and witty songs, and he kept the audience floating on a cloud of laughter and mirth in the space between. “I was just amazed. I hadn’t ever thought that that was possible. And it was cool to see how it worked. And it just unlocked a thing that I didn't know I wanted to do.”

This is why more than 20 years later, Craigie is renowned as not just a fine songwriter but one of the most entertaining solo performers in the realms of folk and Americana. Because his songs will move you, and his stage banter will crack you up.

“A folk singer’s ideal audience is a dark room full of people who just got dumped,” he says in one of his amiably meandering intros on his live album Opening For Steinbeck. “I”m not saying I want that for you guys. I’m just saying it would be nice if most of you had just gotten dumped.” This monologue arrives at a deadpan kind of tempo that reminds some of the late comedian Mitch Hedberg. But it's Craigie’s own thing entirely, and it’s irresistible.

Craigie, who turns 44 this month, has released a dozen albums since breaking out of the open mic scene, living on the road for quite a few years, and ultimately moving to and building a career from a base in Portland, OR. One of that city’s friendliest music bars, The Laurelthirst Public House, is central to Craigie’s newest album, called Pagan Church. On the cover is a scene out front of the tavern, with a bunch of guys sitting and talking around a picnic table. One is a co-owner of the place and a beloved area musician named Lewi Longmire. Craigie is there of course, along with the band he recruited for this one-off collaboration, TK and the Holy Know-Nothings.

TK is Taylor Kingman, a much-admired Portland songwriter who’s known Craigie for a long time. He suggested tapping the song “Pagan Church,” a pretty heavy composition inspired by Craigie’s father’s last weeks of cancer, and flipping it into a reference to this place of communal and spiritual life. It’s a 100 person-capacity bar where all the musicians involved spend a lot of time. “It's that kind of place. And the kind of place where even if it's only 20 people in there it feels great,” Craigie says. “And I live very close, so on any given night, I’ll walk over there. And the music's always good. And they take care of the musicians.”

With that concept in mind, everybody gathered at the Holy Know-Nothing’s band headquarters and recording space in an old school house south of town. They’d collaborated in 2020 on a snarky, uncharacteristically profane and overtly funny rocker called “Laurie Rolled Me A J”, and that set a tone for the energetic feeling of the songs Craigie had going into the Pagan Church sessions. The band, reminiscent of the nimble and fluid Texas Gentlemen, grooves a lot and jams a little across eleven tracks, including the funky, organ-driven “While I’m Down,” the subtle and existential “Good To You,” and the wistful, California-tinged “Where It’s From.” It’s an absorbing listen that’s proven its staying power with many weeks at or on top of the Americana radio chart.

Craigie will appear this summer at the Newport and Edmonton Folk Festivals among many other shows, and while he’s done a few shows with a band to approximate the vibe of the new album, he is at heart a troubadour. “I still prefer the solo. I think it's easier to tell stories and have your lyrics be heard,” he tells us. “It seems to me that the more instruments you add is just one more layer in front of your words.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>