The first time I saw Pokey LaFarge, I hadn’t heard him play music yet. There he was, wandering around the Newport Folk Festival last year looking like he worked either for Hank Williams or Al Capone.
LaFarge’s black hair was slicked. His suit might have had mothballs in the pockets. He later turned up with his lady on his arm, and she, too, was a vision of Dust Bowl beauty - all red lips and swaying vintage dress. Together they could have been plucked from the set of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?’’
LaFarge, who’s based in St. Louis and performs with his band, the South City Three, at Club Passim on Wednesday, cut a striking presence that day. But it didn’t quite make sense until I saw him onstage. He was ferocious, a concentrate of some of his musical heroes, from Bill Monroe’s keen musicianship to Woody Guthrie’s way with storytelling.
One look at LaFarge, who’s 28, and you get a warped impression. He was born Andrew, but nobody calls him that anymore. Pokey suits him, but let’s be clear: LaFarge is not a man out of time.
“I don’t think I was born at the wrong time,’’ he says. “I’m really just playing American music. It’s not old. It’s always been around and always will be around.’’
If anything, LaFarge is a sincere torchbearer of a century of American music he loved and studied as a kid growing up in Illinois. He left home at 17 to hit the road and learn it firsthand. From Dixieland jazz and ragtime to rural blues and Western swing, LaFarge has made it his mission to breathe new life into those old-time genres.
“When I first heard that music, I was just a writer,’’ LaFarge says. “I wasn’t a player until I heard Bill Monroe, and that stuff really made me want to play and sing. I started writing songs after that. It’s always been about finding my own style.’’
He says he had a typical Midwestern upbringing - “playing sports, working in cornfields, and blowing stuff up’’ - but he also had historically minded grandparents who exposed him to old music. He was ready.
“I was looking for something different,’’ he says. “I always wanted to be different and nobody my age was listening to that stuff. To me, it was my own little haven.’’
Even as a youngster, LaFarge saw no reason why certain types of music belonged in the past, let alone did he think there should be restrictions on who could play it.
“It’s not a black and white thing anymore. I don’t think it’s a North and South thing anymore. I just think it’s American music,’’ LaFarge says. “Some of these genres were mixed together almost a hundred years ago. And if they hadn’t been, they probably wouldn’t have survived.’’
After several years on the road, LaFarge eventually ended up in St. Louis and made a name for himself playing around town. With last year’s “Riverboat Soul,’’ which is as good as any description for LaFarge’s music, he started recording with the South City Three.
The trio of young, like-minded virtuosos includes Joey Glynn on upright bass, Ryan Koenig on washboard and harmonica, and Adam Hoskins on guitar. As a quartet, they feed off one another and help LaFarge realize his vision.
“Solo, I was writing for all these different things I was hearing in my head and trying to come up with them all by myself,’’ LaFarge says. “With a band, the sounds come to life now.’’
The band shares LaFarge’s commitment to historic preservation, a fact reflected in the video for “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye,’’ from the group’s new album, “Middle of Everywhere.’’ The various historic locations are identified, as if LaFarge is tipping his cap to them. He’s adamant that St. Louis is underrated when it comes to great music cities, citing its rich history with jazz, ragtime, and blues.
He has also found a kindred spirit in Jack White. The former White Stripes frontman heard LaFarge and company on the radio and invited them to Nashville to record at White’s Third Man Records. “Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County’’ was the resulting vinyl seven-inch single.
The 45’s cover image captures LaFarge at his disheveled Sunday best: buttoning an old suit with fedora slightly cocked. Go ahead and get the wrong idea; LaFarge doesn’t mind.
“I do dress like a weirdo, and I like to wear old clothes. Some people have their own interpretation of that and think we’re dressing up in costume and that it’s all a show,’’ he says. “But we’re getting paid well to travel around the world to play music. I could give a damn what they think.’’James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.