Of all places, it was in a suite of the stately Queen Elizabeth Hotel in beautiful and clean Montreal, Canada where I was first exposed to the magical storytelling of one Willi Carlisle hailing from the Ozarks. Showcasing at the annual Folk Alliance conference, Carlisle was given 20 minutes to do his worst for the gaggle of festival promoters, indie label reps, booking agents, and leering press members looking for that next promising needle in the proverbial haystack among aspirin musicians.
Part folklorist, part cowboy poet, part Vaudeville entertainer, Willi Carlisle twirled his banjo like a baton, played accordion and harmonica too, and was able to suspend disbelief in his audience in a transportive manner rarely if ever experienced beyond adolescence, evoking vibrant characters in peculiar scenarios and fantastic settings that stoked the imagination to an unusual degree, like the first time you truly beheld the power of fiction.
Then and there, it was patently evident that Willi Carlisle was worthy of a wider audience than just those who could squeeze into a hotel suite to hear him. Now with a record deal through the Free Dirt Records & Service Co., and a host of viral videos validating the rabid appeal for his version of vintage storytelling and spellbinding presentation, Willi Carlisle is ready to codify his career and musical contributions with his new album, Peculiar, Missouri.
Peculiar for sure, but at times this album is so cunning and expressive, it cuts to the bone tears the eye. “Tulsa’s Last Magician” is worth the effort to acquire a copy of this album if nothing else, arresting you with it’s amazing songcraft in a style one must trace some 60 or more years back to find a peer or a rival to. “Vanlife” is a hot traditional country lick, hilarious but also harrowing in how it accurately portrays the rapidly swelling problem of the semi-homeless. The title track is a 6-minute stream of consciousness travelogue taking a cutting and illuminating assessment of modern American life.
From water rights to workers rights, like his folk music predecessors, Willi Carlisle isn’t afraid to address the struggles of the common man, or the ills of late-stage Capitalism. His capacity to love everyone as he sings about in “Life on the Fence” means he can find favor with the identity-obsessed press, and be praised as an iconoclast and activist as well.
But unlike some others who profess activism as an attribute, and seem to believe the best way to express that activism is to call anyone who thinks differently from them an imbecile on Twitter—which seems counterproductive to assuaging someone to your side of a perspective—Willi Carlisle lets it be known in the opening song “Your Heart’s a Big Tent” that everyone is welcome in his audience and his heart, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, understanding unlike many of his contemporaries that parable is the best way to share wisdom as opposed to strident and judgmental public belittlement.
It’s fair to say that as this Willi Carlisle album goes along, it may turn a bit too fey and folky for some in the country audience. The peculiar production on a couple of songs probably doesn’t help its cause for a big ten audience either. But to the traditional folk and old-time audiences, songs like “The Down and Back” and “Goodnight Loving Trail” will hit the spot. Willi Carlisle it’s not here to rattle the cage of the mainstream of country. He’s perfectly content working in more obscure modes of music making that feel more familiar and sane to his peculiar old soul.
Most importantly, Peculiar, Missouri establishes Willi Carlisle as one of the premier songwriters, storytellers, and performers in roots music, even if those lucky enough to have been in one of his audiences previously have already known this for a while. The best way to experience Willi Carlisle will always be live. But there is a gift here for spinning tales in a way that shepherds one’s perspective away from modern societal decay and rabid mundanity, that speaks to the plight of the downtrodden, and that is unparalleled in brilliance, and distinctly valuable within the music space.
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