Willi Carlisle is a poet and folk singer who heard—and answered—the call of Arkansas’ Ozark mountain region a decade ago. His residency in the Natural State started with a four-year stint teaching poetry at the University of Arkansas. Then, the siren song of the road accompanied by the music ringing from the mountains called him away from the classroom.
However, Carlisle is more than a folk singer. He also collects and preserves folklore and old-time music.
Carlisle released his solo debut EP, Too Nice to Mean Much, in 2016. He followed that two years later with his full-length album, To Tell You the Truth. His sophomore album, Peculiar, Missouri, is currently available for pre-sale and is set for a tentative spring 2022 release. For now, you can catch Willi Carlisle playing bars and backyards across the United States. For Willi, live shows are the most important part of the craft. That is where he has the chance to truly connect with his listeners.
Outsider caught up to Willi Carlisle as he was heading to a gig last week. These are the barest snippets of a long conversation about music, life, square dances, and poetry.
The Moment that Changed Everything
Willi Carlisle: At around 18, I was playing in a bunch of punk bands and bumming around Chicago. I snuck into a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot concert, and I heckled him. He threatened to shoot me. At that moment, I totally converted.
He was able to play “Mule Skinner Blues,” the Jimmy Rodgers song, with such panache and enthusiasm and skill that I was just like “Oh my God. This guy just brought history to life before my eyes,” and did the most punk rock thing I’ve ever heard which was threatening to shoot me on stage. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a folk singer.
Teaching and Learning in the Ozarks
Willi Carlisle: I might have been teaching Beowulf and Hamlet, but regional varieties of “Turkey in the Straw”—it’s called “Natchez Under the Hill” in the Ozarks—were running through my head. I’d show up to teach in overalls, hungover from the square dance the night before.
I was playing folk music the whole time, but I was not interested in anything commercial. I was strictly interested in regional varieties of old-time music. I’d interview old folks and learn from people who were incredible musicians that learned from their grandparents. In the Arkansas Ozarks, those people are still all around, they still surround us. Whereas most places have lost track of that.
New Album, New Sound
Willi Carlisle: The next record is called Peculiar, Missouri. It’s a 12-song record of folk songs, cowboy music, and originals. It’s rip-roaring. This is the first time I’ve ever worked with a real producer [Joel Savoy]. I am so happy to bring maximal sound to the record.
I want to bring people to their feet and it’s a lot easier to do that with a tight country dance band and I’m just now realizing that. I’d say that the record is a big growth for me.
Bringing the Thunder
Willi Carlisle: The question for me is always, “Did they bring the thunder?” There’s people that are playing incredible music with great virtuosity, but they just don’t quite bring the thunder. I think it has something to do with the limit of your ability. I want to see the moment when the artist surprises themselves and the room is surprised with them.