Review: Willi Carlisle Opens His Heart and Invites the Whole World in with ‘Peculiar, Missouri’

by Clayton Edwards

Somewhere between the old-time music of the Ozark Mountains, protest songs of the early 20th century, and hotter-than-hellfire country music lies Willi Carlisle’s musical style. He combines aspects of all of those things, adds a dash of punk rock sensibility, and pours it over a heaping helping of smart, poetic songwriting. With his Free Dirt Records debut, Peculiar, Missouri, Carlisle delivers the most polished and honest version of his particular brand of folk music.

I spoke to Willi Carlisle last summer and he told me enough about this new album to get me fired up. At that time, I was already enamored with Carlisle’s previous releases and the litany of live videos available on YouTube. So, when he said that this would be a “rip-roaring” release that represented his growth as an artist, my expectations climbed to extraordinary heights. When I clicked play on Peculiar, Missouri for the first time, I knew I had underestimated Carlisle.

Willi Carlisle Grew and Changed as the Album Took Shape

Before Peculiar, Missouri, Willi Carlisle had never worked with a real producer. Joel Savoy handled production on this release and smoothed out some of Willi’s rough edges but not so much that he lost his musical identity. At the same time, the addition of a full band on the record adds a level of sonic depth that Carlisle’s previous releases lacked.

Willi Carlisle’s growth didn’t just come in the form of extra musicians and a professional behind the boards. He has always seemed very open and earnest in his songwriting. However, it seems that Willi dug a little deeper with some of these songs. He really bared his heart on songs like “Life on the Fence” in which he explores the complex emotions that come with coming to terms with one’s queerness. There are also tracks like “Tulsa’s Last Magician” that tell stories that will leave your eyes wet.

“Tulsa’s Last Magician”

This willingness to bare his soul coupled with Willi Carlisle’s songwriting makes for an album that gets very personal and tugs at the heartstrings like an overexcited pit bull with a new rope toy.

The Man Has Range

However, I’m not saying that Peculiar, Missouri is made up solely of deep, introspective, semi-autobiographical songs. Nor is every track on the album a tearjerker. Willi Carlisle’s background as a poet, storyteller, and folklorist plays heavily into the range of songs on this project. Toe-tappers like “Your Heart’s a Big Tent” and “Vanlife” will put a smile on your face while making you think about life. Then, there’s “The Down and Back” which sounds like it could have been written 100 years ago in the Ozarks.

It doesn’t matter if Willi Carlisle is making you cry, putting a smile on your face, or making your feet move, there’s an earnest authenticity in his delivery that you can’t ignore. This is true on his originals as well as covers and traditional songs.

Standout Songs from Peculiar, Missouri

As if it wasn’t obvious, this album really does it for me. It was harder than usual to limit this section to three entries. I still feel like I’m overlooking so many good songs.

With that being said, here are the three songs on the album that will I will be sending to my closest friends with the message, “You have to hear this.”

 “Peculiar, Missouri” (Willi Carlisle)

In my mind, Willi Carlisle is a poet and storyteller above all else. This song is the perfect example of those qualities. In the nearly seven-minute-long talking blues, Carlisle takes the listener to the little town for which the album is named. His vivid storytelling paints surreal pictures of even the most mundane things. Seriously, you have to hear this.

“Vanlife” (Carlisle)

If I put together a list of my 10 favorite Willi Carlisle songs, this one would be near the top. I’ve watched Willi play this tune several times online. In all of those videos, it was just him and his acoustic guitar and that was enough. This version, though, includes a full country band complete with steel guitar and a thumping bassline.

There’s something about the band that elevates this song about the ups and downs of life on the road to the next level. Country fans who are on the fence about Carlisle, you need to hear this.

“Goodnight Loving Trail” (U. Utah Phillips)

This is a different kind of cowboy song. Instead of focusing on herding cattle, hitting the saloon, or shooting it out with rustlers, this song focuses on a wagon train’s cook. About this song, Willi Carlisle said, “It’s one of those cowboy songs but unlike a lot of them, this one’s a reminder that most of the guys that worked out there were overworked and underpaid and never saw much of the profit, to begin with.”

If you’re into cowboy songs, you need to hear this.

Final Verdict on the New Willi Carlisle Album

I know that this isn’t going to be for everyone. However, if you’re a fan of Carlisle, Nick Shoulders, Chris Acker, or any of the other young folk singers out there traversing the country and singing their truth, you’re going to love this album. I know I do.