SPOTLIGHT: Willi Carlisle on Singing Honestly and Bearing Witness to the Now
Willi Carlisle in the Ozarks (photos courtesy of Willi Carlisle)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Willi Carlisle is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for July 2022. Learn more about him and his new album, Peculiar, Missouri, in our interview, and watch an intimate performance of “Life on the Fence” in this video.
I wake up laughing, full of an old love. It’s 2013. I’m at the farm in Mount Olive, Arkansas, and I know who I’m going to marry. I know what kind of life I’m living now, forever. It’s a beautiful summer morning in Izard County, Arkansas, nestled between the Devil’s Backbone and the White River. The chickens, cows, goats, and pigs have been fed already. Uncle has been awake for hours. Aunt made his breakfast and is hard at work in the kitchen. I’m 24 and unemployed, the last to get up. My banjo, out of tune, is leaning against a box of potatoes and root vegetables. The woman I love slept upstairs, but she’s awake and busy too.
“Folksinger” is all I ever wanted to be, but I finally became one when I arrived in Arkansas in 2011. I came thinking I’d be a poet, but highfalutin literature classes became second to square dances very quickly in the Ozarks. The dogwoods and mockingbirds were too romantic for poems. The whole place seemed imbued with oldness. Rural places often do to city kids seeking adventure. We invent nostalgia about them. Still, there were old folks to learn old ways from, things made by hand, long visits, religion, self-reliance. It intoxicated me. This is a little of how it went. If it seems self-indulgent, don’t worry, I understand. It sorta is.
When I say “I wake up laughing, full of an old love,” I mean full of a new love. I mean ancient love. I mean, “Why put your pants back on? We’re just going to fuck again” love. It’s cave-people old, but new to me. It’s the clean and detailed ’87 Cadillac I bought for $700 at Sam’s Autos. It’s the sound of an engine with a bursting carburetor, hot and deep. It’s running water in the cabin, a hot meal instead of a cold sandwich. I drove my love until the wheels fell off on Highway 70 Westbound. I left my love in Winnipeg, London, San Antone. I looked up at the stars in Peculiar, Missouri (or was it the moon in Baltimore?) and there it was again. Becoming a folksinger happens to be the side effect.
My love and I stayed up all the night before. We played music until past dark, singing hymns and country songs. She and I necked, leaning on the fence by the cow pasture, while old dogs ran about with the bats and fireflies, thrilled. My first EP has several songs about that night. Some of them are pretty embellished, ignoring the panic attacks I was having, referring to trucks and mamas instead.
The Ozarks are not a foreign place to me after a decade of living there, but Mount Olive is a bramble of history, thistle, thorn, and sweet, dark fruit. Porter Yates, a Yankee deserter, was bushwhacked at the entrance to the property. The old house was built by slaves, they say. The graves by the river? “Born London, 1780’s, Died Arkansas, 1830’s”. At that river, they drove the last of the displaced Cherokee away to be the “first white settlers” of the area. It’s complicated, bloody, deeply unfair, like all history. I miss that family. They showed me kindness I’ve never known. My love was a helluva poet, too.
The world has changed from the world of Mount Olive, a frontier community of a few hundred. In the old house, there’s a framed newspaper that says something like “Mount Olive, Once a Thriving River Community, Threatens to Become a Ghost Town,” and it’s dated from the 1950s. Modernity is almost unrecognizable once you spend a few days here. You find yourself asking: “Why did I need to know so many people?” and “Why would I do anything on the internet?” and “Who needs a phone? I’ll just drive into town.” It’s freeing.
Folk music comes from worlds like this — when we say “the old, weird America,” what we mean is “a world that we don’t understand anymore, but feel connected to.” Indeed, the world our grandparents were born into would be unrecognizable now. The population has doubled since the 1970s. The number of highways, too. Global population has surged, globalization flourished. Supercomputers learn how we think with marketing that invades our very dreams. Mental freedom? Harder to secure. Information? Free and infinite. Everyone feels this, but it’s hard to comprehend. My grandparents knew bits of German, grew their own food, had a community I’d never felt until I started playing music. My father did seasonal farm labor, worked at his parents’ store, wore lederhosen, and played tuba in a polka band. I feel like I’m playing catch-up to feel that kind of togetherness.
As millennials and zoomers stand at the precipice of ecological disaster, migrant crises, and dustbowls that would make Woody Guthrie weep and set down his guitar, I want to know the old ways. I think they provide a little freedom. Grow rhubarb? One more thing you don’t buy at Wally World. Play in a terrible band? Three hours away from the internet every week. Sing in church? A hundred voices lifted up in fellowship.
Still, I’m no luddite. In my big hat, I’ve spent less time working cattle than I have playing Nintendo 64. Nostalgia is dangerous, a liar, a thief. “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa” and so on. Pathways into folk music, once vernacular and regional, are almost always on the internet now. In Mount Olive, Uncle plays mostly things he learned from the radio and ultimateguitar.com. Meanwhile, I’m learning scratchy fiddle tunes from old 45s and occasionally finding a true flamekeeper, like the rough-and-tumble upbow fiddling of Ray Curbow of Blue Eye, Missouri. I’m lucky to learn from people like that, and occasionally great revivalist folkies.
My love sings the most gorgeous country songs with a lilt and a lisp. She can sing from Red Headed Stranger better than Willie Nelson, and I’d fight anyone that says different. She bakes pies better than my own grandmother. She’s frustrated that I love her way of seeing the world, but it’s novel: a sentimental education in the country, a family of yeoman farmers, a Bible-quoting sage. I get up from bed by noon and she and I spend the whole day wandering around the Ozark Mountains, from ridge to ridge, meal to meal, hiking. Wendy, our blue heeler, nips at everything, rambles ahead, falls behind. She is a noble steed, our dappled standard-bearer. She lives to chase the cattle, but probably doesn’t know why.
That was 2013, and in this year, 2022, Wendy has died and gone to the lord, and my love and I are no longer amicable. We lived together for three years. It feels foolish now. It’s easier to talk about Wendy, who lived honestly. Dogs, bless them, don’t care about codependence or mental illness, so we couldn’t hurt one another’s feelings much. All is forgiven between two animals with only a few phrases between them. Wendy’s occasional stubbornness and overeagerness was nothing compared to a decade of two young poets raking each other over the coals with harsh words.
We mourned, one time, that Wendy only had a mouth and paws, no hands. It’s a cruel paradox that your mouth is what speaks and eats and, in Wendy’s case, articulated most of the world. Imagine — breathing, kissing, talking — but also having only one razor-sharp mouth as your hand. How could you caress? How would you love? We had small cuts from Wendy’s adoring mouth.
And this is how I feel after a breakup: alone, wandering, a lonely mouth, only there to yell, to wound when trying to embrace. Sometimes when I write songs now, playful nips draw blood. Sometimes when I sing, I want to sit in the corner with my head between my paws. I tried pretty hard to cram myself into a family, a way of living, a way of thinking, that felt beautiful and foreign and free amid its complications. A square peg in a round hole, I was a bum and a skeptic.
Let me be clear: Things are as they should be. I have not been a man of taste, hard work, or fidelity. A traveler and a queer person, I have often not needed the full names of the people I have loved, or wanted to know them. I allow people to pass through me, and I want to pass through them — I want to be glue to people who want to love, but am at my best when not adhering to someone. I think every sensitive weirdo feels like an alien sometimes, a species that loves strangely with a sharp mouth. We feel like we are bad aliens, too, who were exiled to this odd planet. We’ve got mouths to cry where everyone else has hands to work, sow, plant. This is how it feels to love queerly, disorderedly, a liberal, suburban dumbo on a self-sustaining farm in the rural Ozarks where little goatlings and puppies and babies romp.
Out in Mount Olive, kith and kin is the rule of thumb. Everyone applauds, cheers, and eats pie at the announcement of new pregnancies. They work sunup to sundown with joy and energy. The patriarch is a hero because he decides what lives and dies, what procreates and what doesn’t. He owns the land, too. His culture is alive, his songs ancient, his history intact. But at what cost? What are the songs the slaves that built it sang? Will the world even survive to know them?
We have a fundamental disagreement: As I understand it, they believe in the great exhumation of the dead on Judgment Day. They believe in eternal life after death for those who do right. They wait for the second coming, believe it’s nigh. I do not argue with faith much, but it feels like too much luxury to think Jesus could save us. It’s too much to own, and as a large white man in America, I have luxuries kings and queens of old could only dream of. I think I believe in death far more than salvation.
So, kicking and screaming, I stopped thinking about an actual kingdom won by blood. I don’t wanna be an inheritor of the eventual (and fast approaching) kingdom of heaven. In 2021, I began to live mostly in the van again. Since then, I’ve been leaning into loneliness, into a desire to be less romantic, into trying to sing honestly, come what may. That’s what the new album is trying to do, I guess. Sometimes it’s stupid, but then I remember that the old folks sang before me and taught me. I remember how little I need, and how much I’ve always wanted regardless. I remember that I don’t believe in heaven, and don’t need to do anything but bear witness to present joys and sorrows.
And it’s complicated. What are we growing toward? “In sorrow you shall beget children,” is how God curses Eve. The earth heats up, fascists bristle, and madmen rule. My sorrow came to a head in a motel room in Jeff City, Missouri (just a short drive from Peculiar), where I wanted to end my life — the chorus of ghosts wouldn’t be quiet, were screaming. Heaven didn’t exist, and even folk music is bloody, and I hurt everyone I love, in some cases unforgivably. I didn’t make it far, and I’m happy about it. I received several diagnoses and medications that are helping me navigate a world full of things I have romantic notions about.
It is slow work. Last Christmas Eve I was in Springfield, Illinois. I was doing well. Psychology books and going to the gym made me feel clear, smart. Then my van broke down, and I realized I wouldn’t see my father, who was diagnosed with liver failure, on Jesus’ birthday. Instead, I wandered down the empty streets, banjo in hand, looking up at the stars. Down and out is only a few mistakes away in this profession. I’ve been here many times before, so I asked myself what the night could bring. Later, covered in a stranger’s semen, I walked five miles to the Red Roof Inn. I sat with the banjo on my lap and sang a song about rebirth: “Lost my partner, what’ll I do? Lost my partner, what’ll I do? Skip to my lou, my darlin’.”
I want to sing ancient songs for an uncertain future, one where growth isn’t everything, where nothing must be born, where nothing needs to be new, where the world is dying and I am in love with everything and we sing because we have hope anyhow. Even disgusted with myself, I feel at home in the honesty of van life, of traveling and learning songs, of not quite fitting in, of seeking tradition anyways. I stay up late at night worrying I’m not doing enough for the songs I could know. I worry I’m a schmuck, a clown. I hear a song 1,000 years old, I hear a song only two living people know. I stay up late with a ghost, and I don’t believe in a second coming. This is it, folks. “Can’t get a bluebird, jaybird’ll do, can’t get a bluebird, jaybird’ll do, skip to my lou my darlin’,” I sing. It’s a guidebook to gratefulness.
Because this is the best job ever, full of nonsense and contradiction. I’m playing 19th-century banjo styles while a kid with ProTools can make music dozens of times more intricate on a hundred instruments. If ProTools is collaborating with a cyborg, a banjo is like conversing with a chicken: limited, kinda difficult, with soft little bones like needles. I’m playing an old music because I want to understand these limits, because I need history to teach me who I am, because it humanizes a world the media insists is cruel and full of assholes. One cannot believe the world is full of assholes with a fistful of cash from passersby. One cannot find anything but sweethearts at the square dance.
It’s July 2022 at the time of writing, and I am in a tiny town near Manchester in the United Kingdom now. A different genius is sleeping near me. One with a dark voice and a wry humor. One of hundreds I get to meet and know on the road, the blessing of my life. We stayed up late, talking about queerness, codependency, mental health, and songwriting. We decidedly did not become romantic, even if I wanted to. I want nothing more than for someone to rip my spine out of my ass so I can collapse into a puddle, but I am working on boundaries. I want holding people in high esteem to be a superpower. I don’t want love to be a liability. I keep my mouth to myself.
Now I’m walking to the train station, limping to the thousandth gig of my life. It’s raining, and the streets ring with fun and funny accents, with people saying pretty things. And it’s my father’s pain I’m feeling, it’s my mother’s. It’s the ancient, never-ending clang that makes us sigh and sing and drink long beers and dance and fall, headlong, into ourselves. I pass castles hundreds of years old, sustained by that great energy. Over cobblestones made by blood, semen, song, and suffering. I’m singing for it, childless, aging. It’s what Walt Whitman called “the procreant urge of the world.” The finches in the air want it. The kids climbing the castle will want it. The walls want it. The soil gyrates with worms and critters, ready to eat it. I am singing for those that came and went. I’ll sing for love and death, certain, perfect, uncontrollable, for the last time I held little Wendy, a sharp-toothed, brindled shapeshifter, our great forgiver.
The journey is ending, but I am at the beginning. I am falling asleep, pulling my big hat over my eyes on the train, ticket in hand. I dream of my father in lederhosen, on his way to play a German wedding in Kansas. I dream of a haunting, modal croon, I dream of my mentor hopping a westbound train and thinking “Next year I’ll stay put for a while.” I wake up laughing, full of an old love.