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Artist of the Month: Willi Carlisle

Feb 1, 2024

Artist of the Month: Willi Carlisle

It’s not hard to imagine Willi Carlisle’s latest album, Critterland, as a decrepit-but-lovable roadside attraction, but here, the side show has decidedly taken center stage. Carlisle, a folksy, pastoral poet and songsmith, has invited all of us inside the big tent he pitched with his last record, Peculiar, Missouri, and to celebrate all of the beautiful ugliness we find in the spotlight. Produced by Darrell Scott, Critterland finds redemption in proudly – and holistically – owning and just as often subverting expectations around rurality, authenticity, community, and belonging. It’s a deft and artful confluence of schtick and performance, vulnerability and obscurity, artifice and genuineness, that could only be accomplished by a creative like Carlisle.

In Ryan Lee Cartwright’s book, Peculiar Places: A Queer Crip History of White Rural Nonconformity, the author and academic makes an astonishing case for the American societal and imperial construction of the “rural idyll,” and thereby, the co-construction of its antonym: the rural “anti-idyll.” The rural idyll is our general understanding of how rurality and the American dream intersect; of goodness and work ethic and respectability, of insiders and good ol’ boys and our kinda folks. The anti-idyll is the amorphous, intangible opposite of those white supremacist and capitalistic constructs.

Critterland is a joyous and liberated inhabitation of the latter concept, reveling in queerness, counter culture, other-hood, and so many kinds of rural, agrarian, and American anti-idylls. What are queer folks, poor folks, Black folks, brown folks, disabled folks in the country – and in country music – besides, first and foremost, antithetical representations of the American dream? The overlooked, enshadowed folks who inhabit the American anti-idyll… who is singing music for them? Who is inviting those very folks to step into the spotlight?

Willi Carlisle is certainly one. Tracks like “When the Pills Wear Off” and “The Money Grows on Trees” synthesize broad, generational, socio-economic realities that are often discussed, understood, and intellectualized – but rarely with their subjects first in mind. Carlisle is clearly making these songs for the people most impacted by their content; any translation they have in more zoomed-out contexts or to wider audiences is simply an added bonus. Others, like “Dry County Dust,” “Two-Headed Lamb,” and the titular “Critterland” seem to wink at the rural cosplay worn by all songwriters and music makers in roots music, but again, winking first to those who already understand it was always cosplay, from the very beginning.

Whether inhabiting the character of his onstage persona, which often but not always aligns with the human himself, or merely reflecting the pantheon of folks in his own life and communities, there’s a quality to Carlisle’s music and to Critterland that’s saying, “This music is for our kind of people.” And in the words of another backwoods poet, Jimmy Martin, “It takes one to know one, and I know you.” That could almost be the entire thesis statement of the album.

Darrell Scott’s production – and his own multi-pronged relationship to the anti-idyll – makes the clumsiness and haphazardness of this set of songs feel fully like a feature and not a bug. This is Critterland, after all, these side show animatronics are on their last legs and that’s why we love them. This sort of charm is certainly carried over from Peculiar, Missouri – which has delightfully variable production styles across the tracks – and really from all of Carlisle’s releases to date. (Including, if not especially, his hugely popular sessions with Western AF.)

Critterland, in the end, may not be the most magical place on earth, but it doesn’t want to be. And, it’s still a place you’ll end up returning to again and again. Because Willi Carlisle’s big tent is really, actually big enough for all of us. On our best and on our worst days and on all of the many days in between.

BGS will spend all of February celebrating Willi Carlisle as our Artist of the Month. Watch for an in-depth feature by music journalist and author Steacy Easton coming soon and, for now, enjoy our Essential Willi Carlisle playlist. Plus, don’t miss Willi and Critterland in the debut issue of Good Country, a new bi-weekly email newsletter from BGS.

Photo Credit: Madison Hurley

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Artist of the Month: Willi Carlisle
Artist of the Month: Willi Carlisle