Come One Come All to Willi Carlisle’s Big Tent

Deep in the belly of the Westin Hotel in Kansas City, MO, folk singer Willi Carlisle is gesticulating dramatically in front of a tiny audience who’ve crammed into a hotel room temporarily converted for the occasion. Revved up, he throws his hands up nearly to the ceiling, then out to assembled listeners, conjuring in thunderous talkin’ blues “The Money Grows on Trees,” a mostly-true tale about an outlaw’s fatal descent into the enchanting grasp of greed and corruption.

This is Carlisle at his purest.

Carlisle’s music demands connection. Enlivened by the intimacy inherent in the room’s close quarters, he transforms this tiny gathering into the perfect audience, by proximity.

Although it’s nearly midnight, strains of music filter out of open doors up and down the hall from Carlisle’s room 629, as listeners spill into and out of the twinkle light lit late-night showcase rooms that made the Folk Alliance International conference the stuff of modern folk music lore.

Behind Carlisle, four floor-to-ceiling panels painted in bright red, white, green, and orange depict a circus tent flanked by whimsical giant flowers whose stems flatten into green banners inscribed “Why Have a God if No One is Saved” on one side, and “Love is a Burden if it Isn’t Brave” on the other.

The lines, drawn from the title track of Carlisle’s latest album, Critterland, released in January, tee up his musical thesis: “everybody gets in,” a line from another song, “Your Heart’s a Big Tent,” cut in 2022 on his sophomore album, Peculiar, Missouri. Together, the tent incarnate and “Critterland” lyrics lay out his terms: love is better than hate, and everybody deserves some. It’s a simple concept, but a tough one to mean. Carlisle does.

“If you actually come from the mindset that we’re all in this together, if you’re able to win that kind of mental freedom, then a kind of a third space opens rooted in compassion,” he says.

In these small showcase rooms at Folk Alliance in years passed, Carlisle was first ignored and then noticed. As he became more comfortable being himself, he shifted from performing what he thought he should – “generic Americana” – to playing the old-time music he loved and sharing nerdy folk music minutia stories between songs. This year, he’s hosting his own showcase room (fittingly called “Big Tent”), and in the past few months, Carlisle’s headlined a European tour and opened for Molly Tuttle; this spring he played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, and will open four Tyler Childers shows.

Carlisle was opening bar shows less than two years ago; last summer, on the heels of his first headlining Europe tour, he debuted at the Newport Folk Festival, shortly after the one-year anniversary of the release of his second full-length album Peculiar, Missouri. To fans, Peculiar presented a radical, anthemic, and comforting message of inclusive love and community, which compounded by Critterland’s portraits of joy and suffering, conveyed a deep emotional truth.

Gifted with Pete Seeger’s ability to unite an audience through song, Bruce Springsteen’s knack for intimate character portraits, and an enthralling stage presence, Carlisle’s crafting folk music for a new generation using a potent, intricate combination of smart lyrics, traditional stylings, and canny wisdom and wit.

“His music reaches a lot of people because he has the capacity to make his music mean something bigger than his story,” says Sophie Wellington who fiddles (and sometimes plays guitar) in Carlisle’s band shows. “He allows for an intimacy to influence his work that has this beautiful ability to be about people, and also about whoever it is is listening.”

Willi Carlisle 3

Jackie Clarkson

But Carlisle remains acutely uncomfortable with success and warry of exponential career growth. Vapid conformity to social expectations means nothing; neither does breaking the rules for the sake of doing so. Bravery lies in the courage to be yourself, whatever that means. Carlisle measures success by the feeling on stage, how open his heart is, and if he’s reaching people.

“Tradition is bigger than cash. We want to think that cash is bigger than tradition. But I don’t believe that anymore,” he says. “What I want from my own life and performances is to be creating a value that is greater than the money for the ticket that I’ve asked for.”

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Carlisle’s musical inspirations never fit neatly into any single box. Raised in a musical family that listened to a lot of bluegrass, as a teenager Carlisle privately consumed Charlie Musselwhite, Shania Twain, Baha Men, and Sam Cooke. When he started playing music, he taught himself America’s “Horse With No Name,” Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt,” and a GG Allin song whose name is too filthy to print. But as he learned, he wanted to emulate Utah Phillips and Carl Sandburg (who used to perform his poetry accompanying himself on guitar), and play like Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, and Blind Boy Fuller.

In college, Carlisle played Bob Dylan and Joan Baez covers and also screamed nearly-unintelligible lyrics on stage in punk bar bands. When he moved to Arkansas for a MFA in poetry and to study old-time traditions, he shifted to folk music. Before Critterland and Peculiar, Missouri, Carlisle wrote and toured a one-man folk opera and hillbilly vaudeville show, There Ain’t No More, and a dark, cross-dressing comedy, A Confederate Widow in Hell; he released his first album, To Tell You the Truth in 2018, featuring fan favorite “What the Rocks Don’t Know;” and his 2016 EP Too Nice to Mean Much, the first track of which, “Cheap Cocaine,” would help kickstart his career when, years later, a recording of it on music video YouTube channel Western AF went viral.

On his latest, Critterland, Carlisle sets free all the misfits he gathered together under Peculiar’s big tent to live their best lives. With “Critterland,” Carlisle imagines an idealistic, surreal world in which animals know more than people, life is lived close to the earth, and love dictates how we live and die. Touching on the weight of family inheritance, he muses on complicated parents, — “The Arrangements” — and beloved simple rituals — “Dry County Dust.” In “Two-Headed Lamb,” he memorializes a creature born “too strange to survive,” his squeezebox accompanying him, dirge-like to illuminate the beauty in a terrible moment.

Later, with “When the Pills Wear Off,” about a love inseparable from addiction, he pivots from ribald to poignant in the space of a word: “Drove 200 miles for six inches of love / And he shined like the neon in the town’s only bar / Slick as the needle and slim as the scar.” The album finishes defiantly, with the seven-minute “The Money Grows on Trees.”

Delivered on harmonica, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and squeezebox, sonically Carlisle’s music could easily be classified as country, folk, hillbilly, Americana, or even outlaw.  But lyrically, it’s protest music more than anything else; holding both the listener and culture accountable, Carlisle challenges the status quo, refusing to settle for a broken reality.

“One of his subverting tropes is ‘let’s just all get together and play music and love each other, which is the opposite of the sad outlaw country singer,” says Jonathan Een Newton of Free Dirt Records, which put out Carlisle’s Peculiar, Missouri.

Driving across dirt roads while living on the intentional community in rural Arkansas that inspired “Critterland,” Carlisle used to sing to himself from a little blue hymnal, whiling away the miles with worship songs he didn’t quite believe. He wrote “I Want No Children,” (off of Critterland) as a hymn for himself, dedicated as he says, “to everybody who wants to decide whether or not they have a right to have children.”

The Welsh word “hiraeth,” awkwardly translates in English to something like, ‘longing for a home you’ll never know.” Although his music is full of rustic imagery — canning jars, backyard chickens, gallivanting possums — Carlisle longs not for some idyllic pastoral wonderland denuded of all historical injustices by rose-tinted nostalgia. Rather, his hiraeth focuses on a mental space, wherein self worth, collective support, and the healing power of singing together reign.

When Carlisle was a teenager, he hid in the bathroom to read queer poetry. Sequestered from prying eyes and questions he didn’t want to answer, he explored new emotional worlds.

And through life, whenever he’s felt trapped in a situation, Carlisle returns to written verse for escape. “It was poetry and music that opened little pockets of hope,” he says. In that emotional safety, he found the kind of freedom he’s now intent on creating for audiences.

Though he cautions that it’s a slightly dramatized sentiment, Carlisle once told me that until recently, he expected to die young of a curable disease. Rendered reckless by a lack of self-worth, with no real vision for the future, he imaged he’d destroy himself one way or the other. But as he’s learned to write not just for himself but for others, that feeling subsided, replaced by the conviction that his art might show others a way through the dark.

In name, “A Higher Lonesome,” Critterland’s sixth track, sounds like some high culture cowboy tale, but is in fact Carlisle’s anthemic dissection of his own journey upward from rock bottom. On stage, Carlisle introduces the song by reminding audiences of the suicide hotline number (988) and pointing out that statistically speaking, each listener or someone they know will need it at some point in their lives.

Played fast and peppy live, with a simple, lolloping beat that makes it easy to imagine tapping the steering wheel while driving down the road, “A Higher Lonesome,” recounts one destructive experience after another. Its uplift comes not in a resolution, but in the regular return to the irresistibly singable refrain, “I been called by a higher lonesome than low as low can be / You can write it on my tombstone outlaw life looks pretty wholesome / When you pay the price in foolishness it takes to get you free / Higher lonesome, kill the bitter parts of me,” which lifts artist and singer alike out of malaise.

“I’ve noticed that the cheapest audience reactions come from when you play fast, hard, and blow your voice out,” Carlisle says. “It’s somebody being like, ‘I’m finding catharsis here.’ They’re just saying ‘I am with you. I also want to scream and break things.’”

Vulnerability for sake of a quick emotional response is perhaps the oldest trick in the singer-songwriter book. But aiming always at greater good, Carlisle takes “A Higher Lonesome” beyond the cheap feels, refashioning it into a call to arms, if only for community and togetherness.

“I don’t want to use the word colonize, but something to that degree is happening to our mental space, because everything else can be controlled. Our minds can’t be controlled, but the internet is eating people from the inside out. And it is overstimulating us with bullshit that does not matter, to numb everyone,” says Wellington. “What’s really special about Willi is that he was able to break through to a large group of people…and being able to be like ‘dude, you can make your own choices, you can think critically about what’s going on.’”

Music is innately ephemeral. Striving for moments of emotional intimacy that outlive the final banjo note, Carlisle always ends shows with a singalong. In his Folk Alliance showcase room, it had to be “Your Heart’s a Big Tent.”

Repeatedly and mostly on queue, an adoring audience shrieked and shouted: “oh your heart’s a big tent / you gotta let everybody in.”

And as the song wound down, plucking banjo beneath his words, Carlisle prompted his listeners for the chorus one more time, making his case rapid fire: “I want to do it for the idea that democracy isn’t dead in 2024, but is just sleeping and waiting for us to come back to it and make good decisions together; I want to do it for the idea that everybody born on planet earth could have equal access to all the joys and suffering that life has to offer.”

“Oh your heart’s a big tent / you gotta let everybody in / it doesn’t matter who they are / if they do right or where they’ve been /Everybody gets innnn.”

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