Afton Wolfe: The Man America Needs Right Now
This is an article about Afton Wolfe because he’s made a record you need to hear called Kings for Sale, and you need to see him play The Lounge at City Winery Friday night — yes, tomorrow, June 11, at 7 p.m. — to celebrate the birth of said artifact. It’s the debut full-length release from the Mississippi native and, from the laugh lines on his whiskered face, it’s been a long time coming. Before we get instantly mired in rock-crit analogies and comparisons to other artists that make muso journalism so obnoxious when it’s done correctly, let’s just let the man sing for a second, shall we?
Did you never play a paper piano?
Did you never ride a bike with no wheels?
Did you never use a milk jug as a baseball glove?
Did you ever know how happiness feels?
Boom. That one chorus, the first one of the first song, and Afton Wolfe has already planted his standard on the hill. This is not business as usual. It’s from a mind who understands how things fall apart and can be put back together. The piano pumps, Wolfe’s growly but sonorous voice holds the fort down, the horns honk and bray a happy noise like if Tom Waits and Randy Newman were in your kitchen for a rent party. It swings, and before you can catch your breath from the chorus he just hit you with, he throws THIS one at you:
Everybody knows when you ain’t got nothing that you ain’t got nothing to fear.
We’re not even halfway through the first song and Wolfe’s not just singing on heaven’s radio, he’s beating the shit out of you with it. He’s dapper with his beard and glasses, lit cigarette, his suit and tie, and his fedora on straight. And you know what he looks like because you just heard him.
Kings for Sale covers a lot of territory, or perhaps we should say Wolfe brings Mississippi to a lot of different places. A lot of those places are the ones only open at night and full of mistake-makers and damaged goods. Every song is its own thing but none of it feels fragmented: from the up-tempo “Paper Piano” to the Little Walter harp and Elmore James slash of “Dirty Girl,” to the wide-open-spaces orchestral sound of “Fault Lines” with ethereal chiming pedal steel — like Dylan carries truck with these days, to “Mrs. Ernst’s Piano,” where Wolfe goes for his most Tom Waits-ish motif to tell the story of a lady piano teacher who was forbidden by her husband to teach a young Black child. The husband dies, she takes on the student, and another confederate flag gets furled. “O’ Magnolia” and the visceral power-chords of “Steel Wires” bring to life his home state’s clawing efforts to reconcile the Jim Crow pedigree and the poverty with a marvelous line that bridges the MAGA crowd with the Book of Exodus:
Put your flag in the window. Put the blood above your door.
Produced lovingly by Oz Fritz at Welcome to 1979 Studio, Kings for Sale brims with a fecund barrel of talent to back him up. His bud (and the Blue Mountain poet laureate of Mississippi) Cary Hudson is on board, Daniel Seymour handles the bass, Laura Rabell sings, Ben Babylon walks all over the pianos and organs, you got your Seth Fox on sax, Tommy Stangroom on drums, Blaise Hearn on trumpet, Joey Dykes on trombone, Patricia Billings on vocals, and guitar man of men Mark Robinson blazes on the guitar as well as mixing the whole thing like a good Cajun meal. Every bite’s different, every bite’s good.
It’s been a bad year. And what’s been lost is not replaceable. We lost John Prine and we lost David Olney. There will never be another of either of them. But if you’re feeling the need for a literate, altogether fascinating singer and songwriter to help ease the sting, make your way to The Lounge at The City Winery Friday evening to know that a troubadour worthy of your time is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. And get there on time to also catch Anana Kaye and Irakli Gabriel.
Afton Wolfe sings, “I was never much of a carpenter; I wouldn’t make you much of a savior.” True enough. We don’t need saviors; we just need people who know how to pass on the troubadour turns of phrase — and the catches in their voices — that save us all.