Willi Carlisle is a poet and a folk singer for the people. Like his hero Utah Phillips, Carlisle's extraordinary gift for turning a phrase isn't about high falutin' pontificatin'; it's about looking out for one another and connecting through our shared human condition. On his anticipated second album, the magnum opus Peculiar, Missouri (coming July 15, 2022 on Free Dirt Records), Carlisle makes the case across twelve epic tracks that love truly can conquer all. Born and raised on the Midwestern plains, Carlisle is a product of the punk to folk music pipeline that’s long fueled frustrated young men looking to resist. After falling for the rich ballads and tunes of the Ozarks, where he now lives, he began examining the full spectrum of American musical history. This insatiable stylistic diversity is obvious on Peculiar, Missouri which was produced by Grammy-winning engineer and Cajun musician Joel Savoy in rural Louisiana. The songs range from sardonic trucker songs like “Vanlife” to the heartbreaking queer waltz “Life on the Fence.” The album also imbues class consciousness in songs like “Este Mundo,” a cowboy border ballad about water rights, and the title track’s existential talkin’ blues about a surreal panic attack in Walmart’s aisle five. Though Carlisle's poetic words evoke the mystical American storytelling of Whitman, Sandburg, and e e cummings, ultimately this is bonafide populist folk music in the tradition of cowboys, frontier fiddlers, and tall-tale tellers. Carlisle recognizes that the only thing holding us back from greatness is each other. With Peculiar, Missouri, he brings us one step closer to breaking down our divides.
If Carlisle’s songs are full of salt-of-the-earth heroes, it’s because he grew up deep in the rural, small-town life of the American Midwest, in Kansas and Illinois. Captain of the football team in high school, he was also secretly queer and interested in poetry and singing, living in those culturally contradictory spaces as a 6'4'', 300lb gentle giant. He came to music in Illinois through punk, screaming out his angst into a microphone at the roughneck bars in his town that had filled up with out-of-work Maytag plant workers. Like other punk rockers looking to branch out, he turned to folk music. Different scenes, perhaps, but they often met in the same DIY community spaces. Enamored with the written word, he moved to the Ozarks on a fellowship to teach literature, and fell in love with the landscapes of these ancient mountains. “In the Ozarks,” Carlisle says, “I acclimated to the specifics of the land, like the feel of a dogwood flower, the crush of a magnolia leaf. The way that everything is full of human blood and buds. Pretty much the first moment I got in the Ozarks, I was transported.” An oft-ignored region rife with generational traditions, the Ozarks became the fertile land that incubated Carlisle as a poet and songwriter.
Though Carlisle came to the Ozarks to teach poetry, he quickly realized that the mainstream literary world had little appreciation for the earthy traditions he came from. “I wanted to be involved in something that was high-falutin’. I really did. My parents and my family struggled to reach the middle class. It defines their generational and epigenetic perch. The American Dream incarnate.” Hanging out in New York off a poetry award, rubbing shoulders with Pulitzer winners, Carlisle was shocked to realize they all came from privilege and knew each other from Martha’s Vineyard. Worse, when they learned he was from the Ozarks, they assailed him with hillbilly pig-fucking jokes. Carlisle had turned to poetry in his youth looking for queer voices, soaking up the subtle homoeroticism of cummings, Whitman, or Sandburg, but he couldn’t see himself in the world of “page poets.” Since Carlisle had already been drawn to worker poets and
songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Utah Phillips, it made sense to turn to a grittier form of American poetry: the humble folk song. Setting his poems to music, he started singing on porches around campus, moved to street corner busking, slept under overpasses, traveled and traveled and learned songs and music from whomever he could. He fell in with experimental theater types in the Ozarks, lived on collective farms, took up the button accordion, learned some polkas. Many artists have an insatiable curiosity, but few travel all the many branches of their interests like Carlisle does. And you can hear that in his music.
The songs on Carlisle’s upcoming album, Peculiar, Missouri, come from his travels around the US, his belief that love is the only way forward for our country, and his critique of late-stage capitalism. The songs are intensely personal, but feel universal. That’s the magic of Carlisle’s songwriting. He’s felt every step of his travels, lived every moment, and uses these memories to fuel his songwriting. The cut-rate prestidigitators on “Tulsa’s Last Magician” come out of a surreal night of partying in Florida with a troupe of magicians. The rapid-fire patter of “The Down and Back” comes from Carlisle’s experience calling square dances. “Life on the Fence” is a heart-breakingly honest song about the trials of bisexuality in a culture that shies away from nearly any expression of love between two men. “Your Heart’s A Big Tent” sounds almost like Carlisle’s thesis statement for the album, “Just sing until you love yourself, and love until you die.” Other songs are harder takes on the sickness of late stage capitalism in America. “Vanlife'' contrasts the privileged Instagram influencers tricking out their vans for life on the road with the many hard-working men and women forced to live in their cars without homes of their own. The album’s title track, “Peculiar, Missouri” wrestles with finding humanity in the fluorescent-bathed aisles of Walmart.
We tend to look at protest songs from a place of anger, of frustration. But Carlisle’s point is that these songs are written from love. We protest because we love something and want to see it made better. We highlight inequities in our culture in order to change them, to improve lives. Carlisle bristles if you ask him how he copes with a divided America. “Who told you it’s divided,” he demands. “They’ve managed to convince people that certain elements of national politics or religious politics are hills that they have to die on. Most Americans have been systematically deprived of any ability to advocate for themselves. The square dance, the concert, the independently owned record store, the coffee shop, the small press, the punk house… These are the places where the right to assemble and think freely is still living against all odds.” In a country where the idea of freedom is so beloved, perhaps it takes a free spirit like Willi Carlisle to help us remember Utah Phillips’ famous phrase, that “freedom lives between your ears.”