Of all places, it was in a suite at the majestic Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the beautiful and clean city of Montreal, Canada, where I was first exposed to the magical storytelling of a Willi Carlisle from the Ozarks . Featured at the Folk Alliance’s annual conference, Carlisle was given 20 minutes to do his best for the group of festival promoters, independent label reps, booking agents and peeping members of the press looking for of the 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 stick, also played accordion and harmonica, and was able to suspend his audience’s disbelief. in a transportive way rarely, if ever, experienced beyond adolescence, evoking dynamic characters in particular storylines and fantastical settings that fueled the imagination to an unusual degree, like the first time you really given the power of fiction.
By then, it was blatantly obvious that Willi Carlisle deserved a larger audience than those who could sneak into a hotel suite to hear him. Now with a record deal through Free Dirt Records & Service Co., and a slew of viral videos validating the rabid appeal for his version of vintage storytelling and haunting presentation, Willi Carlisle is ready to codify his career and his musical contributions with his new album, Weird, Mo.
Particular certainly, but sometimes this album is so cunning and expressive, that it cuts to the bone tears the eye. “Tulsa’s Last Magician” is worth picking up a copy of this album if nothing else, stopping you with its incredible songcraft in a style that you have to go back some 60 years or more to find a peer or rival. “Vanlife” is a traditional hot country lick, hilarious but also heartbreaking in the way it accurately portrays the rapidly growing problem of semi-homelessness. The title track is a 6-minute travelogue of consciousness taking a sharp and illuminating assessment of modern American life.
From water rights to workers’ rights, like his folk music predecessors, Willi Carlisle is unafraid to address the struggles of the common man or the ills of terminal capitalism. His ability to love everyone as he sings in “Life on the Fence” means he can find favor with the identity-obsessed press and also be hailed as an iconoclast and activist.
But unlike others who profess activism as an attribute and seem to believe that the best way to express that activism is to call anyone who thinks differently from them a fool on Twitter – which seems counterproductive to appease someone. ‘one on your side from a point of view – 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 did, understanding unlike many of his contemporaries that the parable is the best way to share wisdom as opposed to strident and critical public belittlement.
It’s fair to say that as this Willi Carlisle album progresses, it may get a little too fairytale and folksy for some in country audiences. The particular production of a few songs probably doesn’t help his cause for a big ten audience either. But for traditional, old-school folk audiences, songs like “The Down and Back” and “Goodnight Loving Trail” will hit the mark. Willi Carlisle is not here to shake the cage of the country mainstream. He is perfectly content to work in more obscure modes of music, which makes him more familiar and saner for his peculiar old soul.
The most important, Individual, Missouri establishes Willi Carlisle as one of roots music’s foremost songwriters, storytellers and performers, though those who have been lucky enough to have been part of one of his audiences before have known this for some time. The best way to experience Willi Carlisle will always be live. But there is a gift here for telling stories in a way that takes its perspective away from modern society’s decadence and rabid banality, speaks to the plight of the downtrodden, and is unrivaled in brilliance and invaluable in the musical space.
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