Willi Carlisle: All The Joys Life Has To Offer

Willi Carlisle is a plainsman poet, intuitive multi-instrumentalist, and excruciatingly savvy songwriter gloriously bent on a notion that every heart is capable of and deserves the inherent joys present in life. A big man with a comforting Midwestern patois, Carlisle’s artistic agility marks him as one of the finest among his generation, but it’s the 33-year-old’s impassioned, nigh daredevil emotionalism that pumps fresh blood through each cut on his sophomore full-length, Peculiar, Missouri.

“You’ve been there, even if you haven’t been,” Willi says in the title track, a sprawling real-time panic attack dressed in calliope and cowboy talkin’ blues– and the native Jayhawker doesn’t just mean the very real Anywhere, America waystation located half an hour south of Kansas City. Wearing the mantle of folksinger, Carlisle’s sonic mirror is angled somewhere east of the moment, west of eternity, reflecting facets of himself, and as far as this commentator’s concerned, every other sentient currently residing under “the world’s closest star.”

On the album’s opener, “Your Heart’s A Big Tent”, Carlisle posits a “theory of all love” regardless of the past or future cost, exclaiming, “If I can’t live clean then I’d better love dirty!” The waltzing, semi-autobiographical “Life On The Fence” faces the unruly pain of hidden bisexuality, lamenting a culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia, while in “Tulsa’s Last Magician”, Carlisle also mourns the universally endangered species of wonder. Here, Carlisle pleads for a renewal of faith– in magic, God, each other? It doesn’t matter; so long as possibility endures, so too will heroes.

The ramblin’ fevered “Vanlife” dismisses cliche to offer up a wry view of freedom amid a still-beautiful land stained by marching time, oddity, and apathy while the transcendent “I Won’t Be Afraid” could and should be a battle cry aimed at any choosing to objectify liberty– physical, spiritual, sexual– through a single color, flavor, or orientation. In it, Willi promises to “dance like someone’s proud of me,” lauding fearlessness and honor over shame and judgment, and on “The Down And Back”, Carlisle fiddles to beat the devil of unbridled capitalism’s undiscerning gristmill, rebuking the machine and the designated hitter despite (or because of) the futility. 

Recorded in Eunice, Louisiana with GRAMMY-winning producer Joel Savoy, Peculiar, Missouri swells the ribcage, floods the eyes, and raises the chin. In “The Grand Design”, Willi Carlisle sings, “Comin’ home, you should know I ain’t the same,” and having heard the tale, how could anyone be? 

AI- I can’t remember where I first heard your name, but my proper introduction to your music was when I was coverin’ The Wooks’ latest record, and they do a version of “What The Rocks Don’t Know”!

WC- Yeah, that was a huge honor (laughs)! When I do that song, it’s acapella, and that second record [To Tell You The Truth], I’m pleased with it, but I ran out o’ money, so I essentially just released the roughs. That song has dozens of verses to it– it’s one of those things I used to write a verse of once a week just for fun! So I never planned on having it covered by a band that awesome or a six-piece bluegrass band behind it! They did an amazing job, and they found me through friends of friends of friends. I felt real lucky about it!

You played sports in school, and you were into punk music early on. I think you play just about every instrument– either that or you’re one o’ those “golden” musicians, as Fred Eaglesmith would say, that can just pick up anything and learn it in a minute! What did you start off playing, and what led you into the punk scene?

My dad played bluegrass and polka music and helped run a festival in Kansas and was busy in the Kansas music scene. But by the time I was a kid, he was mostly done with that stuff, so I just heard the legends and had the records in the house. I’d listen to the records when everybody was gone– and get into the stuff that I wasn’t supposed to touch!

I was a pretty normal kid. I really wanted to do music, and I was in choirs and stuff in school, but the moment I got to college (laughs), the would-be drummer for my punk band comes in– and I think I’m listenin’ to The Band, and I also had some other country records– and this kid says, “We’re gonna getcha listening to punk music!” (Laughs) And that was it!

I can’t really say it was any kind of artistic discovery of my own, but I think after football… Bein’ from a small town and livin’ in a small town in Illinois as a confused, testosterone-laden, bisexual-but-real-mad-about-it person was exhausting, and football was an outlet. But it was also this really typically hyper-masculine outlet. Punk was this way weirder way to get into that anger, and I really, really enjoyed bein’ able to root around in that emotional space. 

Did you find that to be more welcoming or open to your sexuality? Or in helping you to realize that yourself?

Oh, yeah! I’ve been blessed! I’ve never really had any problems compared to… Somethin’ I always tell interviewers or pretty much always say aloud is that it has its stresses, but you’re sorta like a vampire that can walk around during the day, you know? You just get a lot less trouble than most. So yeah, findin’ a place where it was acceptable was important, and of course, essential. But also, I was very happy to have discovered [the punk scene] because you could be anybody you want. It’s not so much, “Oh, you can be queer here,” it’s that you can literally be this person who pretended to be a dragon every day! You could be a person who never wore pants (laughs)! Nothin’ mattered! It was all experimentation, and all you had to do was show up as yourself!

I remember, our first show got shut down because we were all underage in the bar– and we were horrible– and the crowd that we had brought with us all screamed at the bar manager until he let us finish our set! And we were objectively horrible! That was how cool it was! The little punk community in the town that I was in had kind of exploded because of a Maytag plant closing. It was one of the last factories in the area, so there were a lotta angry, young, out-of-work people. 

Tell me about the poetry aspect of what you do because that’s been a love of your life for a very long time. 

I fell in love with poetry… Boy, I’m tryin’ to remember exactly when! It was always something that was in my life. My dad had a signed Robert Frost book for some reason. It was a smart household, but my dad was the first in college, so he was proud of everything, you know? I borrowed that signed Robert Frost book and took it to school in the fourth grade– I think possibly because I was just bein’ a little peckerwood and gettin’ into whatever I could! But I really always like [poetry]. I think it’s partly because it was short and I had a real bad attention span. I was in trouble in school all the time, and poetry was somethin’ I could carry with me– and it was also somethin’ I could memorize. I always liked to sing and I always liked to recite things to myself– I still do it while drivin’– and then I kinda took it as far it would go. 

When I got to [college], it was just instantaneous. I bought a guitar and I was writin’ poems and if there had been folksinger classes, I woulda taken ’em! But when we would present on a poem, I would either present on a Dylan Thomas poem or a Bob Dylan song! And sometimes, I’d get in trouble for that kind o’ thing! 

Then, I had no idea what to do. I traveled a bunch, I was kinda outta work, and I just sent some poems to the University of Arkansas. And not based on my mental health, adultness, or teaching ability but on the quality of about ten poems, they hired me to get a Master’s degree and teach world literature and writing for four years! That was insane! I never thought that would happen! But things have always gone better than I expected, basically (laughs)!

At what point did you decide, “I’m gonna go be a troubadour and I’m gonna hit the highways and the rails like my heroes before me?”

Well, I did it ASAP! I started soft and slow but as soon as I was 18, I was hitchhiking. I had bad success (laughs)! I remember, somebody told me, “You can’t look like you’re gonna kill somebody!” (Laughs) I had a mohawk and a leather jacket with patches on it…

And you were 6’4 and several hundred pounds!

Right! I wasn’t 300 pounds yet, but I am now! But now, I try to look nice! The early days of couch surfing were really good to me, and I really rarely lacked for a place to stay. I think I had a pretty dreamy time! It’s been harder ever since! But I was doin’ it as soon as I could and as often as I could. I spent all my summers doin’ it– I dropped out briefly– and as soon as I got to graduate school, it was like, “Oh, I need to grow up,” but I just couldn’t.

If I’m honest, most of me in graduate school was gettin’ Ds, thinkin’, “Boy, this is a waste of time,” and that’s because I realized that everybody that was doin’ the poetry thing, many of them had a lotta money and nobody knew what the hell they were gonna do with themselves. Not only was there no money in it for people, there also was no audience. People who published, to me, devastatingly good books of poetry, you’d be lucky to sell five hundred [copies]! It was a little bit like, “Shoot, I wanna play music! This is what DIY musicians do anyways only I don’t have to deal with the pretentiousness!” Also, my voice is a lot more interesting– somebody that knows a lot about folk music history and can play a lot o’ old songs is a little bit more interesting than another white guy writing about his feelings! That’s been done for a few centuries in poetry, right?

I wanted to be a folksinger from the earliest time I knew there was the profession. Before that, I was just wandering around reciting poems and singing songs to myself and other people.

Did you see the correlation between the two forms?

Oh, yeah, absolutely! Page poetry has only been page poetry for a couple hundred years. What’s way longer than that is the living memory of human beings that used to transfer stories in meter in rhyme. They’re absolutely connected, and that people separate poetry and music now is, I think, one of the reasons why people aren’t that interested in poetry or music on some level. I think that they have to be joined at the hip. I loved school for poetry! I didn’t love school for anything else at all (laughs), but it’s enriched my life a huge amount and I think it goes there to die. To me, a poem and a square dance can be really similar– they both are little dancing things.

You’ve called this your pandemic record. Being a folksinger at an extraordinary time in history… I suppose, to some degree, every moment is important in some aspect, but certainly, in the 21st Century and even going back as far as the 20th Century within my lifetime, I don’t know that we’ve ever been at a point like we are now. You, as a poet and as a songwriter and a folksinger are smack dab in the middle of it. How did that play a part in putting together Peculiar, Missouri?

Simple logistics. I live in a rural part of the country, I’m from rural places, and havin’ to have the conversation with people early on in the time of the vaccine, about how we were all gonna gather in the studio, and then working with the ideal musicians was a constant navigation. One thing that I’ve learned livin’ out in the country is just how much I respect reticence and autonomy and while I disagreed with people, havin’ to have those conversations made me a more informed person. They made me understand more about what I believe about social and civic duty and the ideas about freedom that we bandy around. Now, that all sounds kinda heady, but tryin’ to get a bunch of people into the same room when everybody’s uncomfortable and tryin’ to get a bunch of urban and rural musicians to work together at the same time (laughs) was an interesting experience.

In a lotta cases, if it hadn’t been a pandemic, I probably would’ve called dozens of friends and essentially done what a lotta people do, which is throw a lot at the wall and see what might stick. Instead, because it was a pandemic, I went way down outta my comfort zone and hired this brilliant guy, Joel Savoy, down in Eunice, Louisiana– and sat there trying not to comment on the GRAMMY sitting on his desk– and let him do a lot o’ the production and had as many of my friends as could drive all the way down there. We tried to keep it limited to a certain number of people.

I’m a maximalist. I want every idea, and my brain rarely shuts up. (Laughs) I have to smoke myself to sleep sometimes! But in that case, it was like, “Well, we’ve got seven days, and we’ve got these 6, 8 guys,” so that was different and made it very enjoyable.

Photo by Mike Vanata

“Your Heart’s A Big Tent” opens up the album. “If I can’t live clean, I’d better love dirty…” Great line, and as so many songs across the album will, it brings up that idea of freedom you mentioned– the freedom to do the important things. You talk about protesting from a place of love as opposed to a place of anger, which really reminds me of Pete Seeger and his approach to singing and activism.

I will take any comparison to Pete Seeger any day (laughs)! Even if somebody thought he was ugly and said, “You’re ugly like Pete Seeger,” I’d be like, “Wow! Thanks!” I think that love is messy and I believe really firmly in somethin’ that Emma Goldman the anarchist philosopher said, which is that all we want is that everybody have access to all the joys that life has to offer. I think that the human spirit is flat, that everybody can experience all the joy that there is, and that everybody does experience all the joy and sorrow that there is just inevitably by nature of bein’ alive. At least, from their perspective they sure do– and who’s gonna argue with that? If I can’t live clean, if I can’t make everything clean lines…

You know, on one level, it’s for the people that if they can’t stay clean, well, then they have to be dirty and fix themselves slowly. But on another level, of course, if things have to be messy in order for you to make things work, well, then by God just make a mess!

The song “Life On The Fence”… “Why is living a lie more easy than life on the fence?” That doesn’t necessarily have to be a true story– but it’s truer than not for you, I think? When did you come out personally and professionally? And was it an easy transition or was it something you had to work yourself up to?

I came out to myself as a teenager, (laughs) but there wasn’t any language to describe it was the problem! Maybe there was language floating around on the internet, but it wasn’t like we have nowadays– it was just different enough. I don’t feel like anybody should have to define their personality on their sexuality, but I will say that, to me, there being no dominant narrative for queer male lifestyles in many kinds of upbringings but especially in the Midwest and South, in the flyover states, can make it difficult for people to carve out a life. So it’s easier to go with the life that’s been prescribed to you with this “normal” thing that will never fit, but it’s too hard to describe the experience of loving everybody is what I’ve figured out. It’s not anymore for me– I feel like I found my voice in it– but it’s a lot of stress when you’re trying to describe it and no one understands. It makes you feel pretty isolated, especially if you don’t have much in the way of community. Queerness isn’t a community that you’re born into like family; it’s something that you are born with and then you find other people that are the same. But if you don’t have a lot of people around, it can be hard to find people of a similar persuasion or people who understand. I hope that makes sense.

It does, and I was gonna ask about this a little bit later on, but since you put it that way… I think it was right before everything went to hell in a handbasket with COVID, you were part of planning the Queer and Trans Oldtime Music Gathering. I’m assuming that didn’t go through because of COVID?

Yeah, we let it go, and it feels like a failure, honestly. But I’m livin’ to fight another day!

So you do intend to try to put that together another time?

No, we’ve let the project go. We’ve let it go and tried to pass the torch and we’re seein’ who picks it up and we’re takin’ our time. Our ideal, myself and my co-organizer Clive’s [North] ideal was to facilitate it one year and literally at that gathering, pass it on to somebody else. What we’ve found now is that we pretty much took all the donations and funneled ’em towards Bluegrass Pride, this great queer music-based nonprofit, and people have things in the works. It feels like a failure to not have done it, but I had to let COVID kill somethin’. We couldn’t let it stop almost everything, you know? We always had to soldier on, but two and a half years later when we lost the venue, lost the deposit, a couple o’ failed relationships for me and the other organizer, it’s like, “Well, maybe we’ll be activists in a different way.”

I think there was merit to the idea, so I wouldn’t take it as a failure. Just my two cents.

Of course not! I’m just tryin’ to be honest with myself about how we can’t do everything, you know (laughs)?

“I Won’t Be Afraid Anymore”, I’ve only been able to listen to that song twice, and it’s brought me to tears both times. I feel like the declaration, “I’ve done some dumb shit, and I plan to do some more”… I don’t find that a negative. I find that a positive in going back to that freedom we were talking about– the freedom to take chances.

I’m very flattered that you like it because that was, weirdly, the hardest one to write. Okay, “Peculiar” was the hardest one to write…

I was gonna ask about that, yeah (laughs)!

But “Peculiar” was because I had to write it down. Usually, what I do with “Peculiar”, that’s partway improvised, so writing any of it down was like, “What do I write down? I don’t know what I say here?” As soon as you put the paper in front of me, my mind is blank (laughs)!

“I Won’t Be Afraid” was me tryin’ to trust my impulses. I don’t write simple songs– or at least, I struggle with real simplicity. Three chords and the truth is the idea, but when the truth is just, “I’ve done some dumb shit, and I’m gonna do some more,” it’s like, “Is this the good enough truth?”

But that’s that punk background right there! To me, “Hey, daddy-o, I don’t wanna go down to the basement,” that’s some o’ the greatest American poetry ever written and put to three chords, so I think it comes from that same truth.

I’m glad to hear somebody say it because when we recorded it, I was like, “Man, I don’t know if that was my best take? Man, I don’t know if that was the right one?” But I was sobbing– and I’d only had one drink! Usually, it takes me three! Thank you, I’m pleased with it.

The verse that I really like in there is, “I’ll stand in line and I’ll be counted, I’ll be sorted among the ones that doubted / As for the saved, I wish you well / I’m alright with going to hell, seems like the city on the hill is getting crowded,” which is to say– and I guess this relates to “Life On The Fence”– in late capitalism here, it is increasingly hard to just find the freedom between your ears to think how you want. We have more and more media shoved at us all the time and most of it’s just tryin’ to get us to buy things or develop a certain kind of lifestyle where we do buy things. I think that all the joy of living is available to us fairly instantaneously when our basic needs are taken care of. That’s hard to do, and it’s also very scary to do– to take responsibility for your own life and actions and even thoughts.

In some ways, you confront that very capitalism in the song we just glossed over, “Peculiar, Missouri”, that you called the hardest to write. “You’ve been there even if you haven’t been,” and I know exactly what you mean– both the physical spot and the mental spot!

It’s a transitional space, right? It’s, ideally, a state of mind, right? (Laughs) It’s a bad pun, of course, too– a weird misery. I guess I hadn’t thought about how those two things relate (laughs)!

Well, that’s the beauty of a song– so many people hear different things when they experience it.

When I told the label that the centerpiece and the title track o’ the record was gonna be this ten-minute long, improvised talking blues, they sorta said, “Please don’t.” (Laughs) And it was because they hadn’t heard it! And then when they heard “Vanlife”– the initial version of “Vanlife” was ten or twelve verses long– they said, “All of this won’t fit on a record,” so I made some cuts and brutalized it a little bit, but “Peculiar” never really changed. It was the same story the whole time.

I’d wanted to write a song about havin’ a panic attack in a Wal-Mart for a long time, and it’s not because it’s any one panic attack, it’s like dozens of panic attacks– and I think everybody’s been there. You go into a store, you can’t remember why, it’s actually and totally overwhelming, and kind of an inhuman experience (laughs)! You know what’s a very human experience? A skating rink (laughs)!

But that’s a fleeting human experience! I don’t know that the current generations are even… You’ll say that one day, and nobody will know what you’re talkin’ about!

Right, I suppose that’s true. Public spaces are going away all over the place, so I guess that’s what I mean– the skating rink as the cheesiest available example of where people could hang out and hold hands with somebody new and run into their aunt and get a little exercise and eat some bad food! Those spaces seem to increasingly go digital, and sometimes on tour– and I know everybody has this experience, so it’s really not just me– but sometimes the only place that I’ll go is the gas station or a grocery store in a day besides sittin’ in the van. It’s like, “Here’s my human interaction! Here we are! It’s fluorescent-lit and there’s nine kinds of shampoo and I don’t fully understand how to wash my hair!”

If I reach back and I think about the Depression era and I think about Woody Guthrie and I think about when it seemed that people then were also getting out of the public space, it seems like the folk singer was really doin’ his or her part to bring those people back together. Do you feel like you’re doin’ that in the 21st Century with this album?

I don’t wanna overstate my impact in any way, but the lofty goal is just that. If I could be a square dance caller and an auctioneer, I would do that. And I get to do that stuff occasionally, but apparently, it’s easier to have a profession, for me, as a writer and a folk singer. So yes, it’s what I wanna do all the time. Getting people together to do something that makes everybody feel good, that’s number one– and I don’t just mean sell beer! And I don’t wanna create an apolitical sense of gathering or of joy or of community. I wanna try to create something that’s somewhat mobilized towards a common purpose. Figuring out exactly what that is and how to activate it isn’t easy. I’m still sorta figuring out but in the meantime, I would say this is certainly what the record’s trying to do! (Laughs) It’s just not over yet, you know? It’s a lifelong project!

Peculiar, Missouri is available now on CD, LP, and through all major digital platforms. For news and tour updates, Like & Follow Willi Carlisle!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday evening at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.