Wouldn’t you know: Bloomington-Normal spawns a music original like Pokey LaFarge and Wikipedia tells the world that Benton, half a state away, performed the honors.
“Benton?” responds LaFarge in a bemused tone that suggests the popular online information resource should be consulted but never believed.
“No, I was born in Bloomington, at St. Joe’s.”
Benton’s loss has been our ongoing gain, starting when the boy christened Andrew Heissler was begat 29 years ago.
He remained among us until the day he graduated from University High School, Class of 2001.
The day after, he recalls, he swung a thumb and headed west, young man.
Definitely rebel-teen time, he reflects. “I was a pretty crazy kid.”
His hitching days are over, but LaFarge is still on the road, in the roaming tradition of his longstanding literary muse, Jack Kerouac.
The road dovetails back home this weekend, where LaFarge and his newly expanded band will headline a Castle Theatre show Saturday night, day-and-date with his grandmother’s 87th birthday.
“Oh, yes, Grandma will be there, sitting in the front row.”
Thanks to her grandson’s love affair with the deepest roots of American musical traditions, she’s not going to feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Meanwhile, thanks to the way her grandson has reinvented that same sound for the century at hand, neither will LaFarge’s own peers from the 20/30-something sector.
How best to sum up him up in an easily digested sound byte without shortchanging any of his myriad influences?
As winner of the Independent Spirit Award for Best Americana Album (2011’s “Middle of Everywhere”)?
As the digger of roots, ever-searching for new and creative ways to fuse early jazz, western swing, string ragtime, country-blues and a half-dozen vintage styles into something both retro and alive-and-kicking?
As the naturally outgoing, outspoken entertainer who tried to shed his Midwestern roots as that rebel teen, but couldn’t, for the life of him?
“My father and mother were both very historically minded,” he says of his formative years here. “At the same time, I was exposed to a lot of early music because my grandfather was in a bluegrass band. I also started listening to a lot of classic rock and stuff like that made me want to look back further.”
The epiphany that transformed Andrew Heissler into Pokey LaFarge came when he discovered the godfather of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. That led to the purchase of a mandolin and even deeper digging.
Then: exposure to other profound influences, chief among them Bob Wills and his western-swing legacy.
“The further I got, the more of a student I became of what I came to view as not an older art form, but an ongoing art form … a new classical form, if you will,” he says.
“My resolve was strengthened,” he adds, “by the fact that there have been so many attempts to kind of brush this stuff aside and make it less important than it is.”
If you were hanging out at downtown (not uptown) Normal’s Jake’s Pizza circa the late ’90s or early ’00s, you probably crossed paths with Pokey.
Pizza joint or no, “it was a huge influence because the owner, Juice, was always playing blues non-stop — I mean, REAL blues — and the place became kind of a safe haven for me and all my friends.”
Aiding this innate openness to things past was his status as a “big American author fanatic — Steinbeck, Emerson, Kerouac. So, you know, as a result, I was always pretty opinionated and never ashamed to state my feelings on the state of the nation … certain things about America and music and injustices. Yeah, I was a pretty crazy kid.”
And a yearning one: “The day after I graduated, I began hitch-hiking around the country … taking an alternate path from the one my friends did, who now are all married and have families.”
At the time, friends and family were naturally skeptical of the crazy kid and his outspoken ways. “People doubted me then; now they are proud of me, and maybe surprised, too.”
He adopted the Pokey LaFarge alter-name because, well, it sounded good, and was somehow evocative of what he was searching for musically as he bummed around the country, from California to Wisconsin to Kentucky to North Carolina.
A lot of street performing was logged en route, during which time he began to find himself “as both a singer and an instrumentalist.”
Around 2008, the road ended in St. Louis, which he’s called home ever since, and which keeps him honest in terms of what he feels are his inextricable Midwestern moorings.
It was in St. Louis that his band, the South City Three, was forged, via singer Ryan Koenig, guitarist Adam Hoskins and upright bass player Joey Glynn.
The recent addition of several horn players to the mix has rendered the South City Three name obsolete, he says. For the moment, then, he prefers the billing as just Pokey LaFarge.
The band has found a powerful fan base in Europe, one that has extended as far afield as India, where the road will wind later this year.
An alliance with guitar hero Jack White has led to both a guest shot on White’s acclaimed “Blunderbuss” album and an opening slot on the resulting tour, which included sold-out shows in Radio City Music Hall and Colorado’s Red Rocks Theater.
A collaboration with Vince Giordano ended up on the soundtrack of HBO’s acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire”; on New Year’s Eve, 2013 was rung in with the Old Crow Medicine Show in Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium.
“I think people in the Midwest are kind of sad in a lot of ways,” he says as he tries to define just what it is that keeps him rooted to his origins. “We have low self-esteem about ourselves ... we’re a humble people in a lot of ways.”
Sad … humble … insecure … whatever, Pokey LaFarge sees himself as both a spokesman for that spirit as well as a torchbearer for the musical traditions that somehow embody it.
“It’s kind of sad that there aren’t more people out there doing this kind of music,” he says. “They call it ‘retro,’ but I see myself looking forward more than backward. In a lot of ways, this music is very modern.”
At a glance
What: Pokey LaFarge with Al Scorch
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Castle Theatre, 209 E. Washington St., Bloomington
Tickets: $10 to $12
Box office: 309-820-0352