Review: Willi Carlisle sings satirical, populist folk songs

Jul 14, 2022, 1:43 PM | Updated: Jul 15, 2022, 5:10 pm

“Peculiar, Missouri,” Willi Carlisle (Free Dirt Records)

Coming from a queer, 6-foot-4, 300-pound former high school football captain who went on to sing Midwestern punk rock, pursue poetry in New York and then earn a fellowship to teach literature in the Ozarks, this album is what you’d expect: different.

It’s terrific, too.

Like the prairie pioneers who inform his muse, Willi Carlisle has navigated remarkable terrain to arrive at “Peculiar, Missouri,” a collection of campfire folk that celebrates love while railing against capitalism, meritocracy, our political divide and the designated hitter.

Carlisle’s sharp satire and literary bent separate him from the populist pack. He draws on the work of Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings, rhymes “Bugatti” with “Passamaquoddy,” and employs such words as fractal and chlorophyllic.

His range of styles also helps put “Peculiar, Missouri” on the musical map. The anthemic “I Won’t Be Afraid” will bring goosebumps with a singalong chorus aided by the vocals of Ordinary Elephant, before Carlisle pledges to “love whoever I well please.” The title cut is a talking blues that takes a pivotal turn in the cosmetics aisle at Walmart, while the banjo-driven “Your Heart’s a Big Tent” proposes a group hug. “Life on the Fence,” a weepy waltz about a conflicted bisexual, describes a love triangle in 3/4 time, and the drony traditional ballad “Rainbow Mid Life’s Willow” evokes the Scottish Highlands even as Carlisle pronounces “wallow” as “waller.”

Elsewhere Carlisle sings about a family sawed in half (“Tulsa’s Last Magician”) and the empty allure of the vagabond lifestyle (“Vanlife”), always with a twinkle in his tenor. He also plays a mean button accordion. The former football captain deserves a high-five for this entertaining, thought-provoking snapshot of America.


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Review: Willi Carlisle sings satirical, populist folk songs