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20 Questions With Afton Wolfe

The singer-songwriter talks bobbleheads, Sam Rockwell & excess in moderation.

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Afton Wolfe is no sheep. The Southern singer-songwriter walks his own path, as anyone who’s heard his outstanding recent release Kings For Sale already knows. Those who don’t already know are invited to check out the album below, while perusing Wolfe’s thoughtful and creative answers to my thoughtless questions. That’s one trap he probably wishes he’d avoided. On the plus side, he didn’t have to chew off his leg to escape.

 


 

Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base and any other details you’d care to share — height / weight / identifying marks / astrology sign / your choice.
Afton Wolfe; 42 years old; born in McComb, Miss., currently based out of East Nashville, Tenn.; 5’11”, weight undisclosed; several tattoos – a robin for my wife, Robin; a wolf for my dad and brother; a wrap of three Tarot cards around my arm for New Orleans and magic, and several others that were basically the result of adolescent rebellion. I wish they’d been T-shirts. My astrology sign is Sagittarius, but the astronomical Zodiac constellation that the Sun crosses through now is Ophiuchus.

What is your musical origin story?
The first memory I have is singing with my mom in church. I have always loved to sing (to the point of annoying more than a couple of people). I have also always enjoyed or needed writing words. I don’t know if it’s a pastime, a need for self-expression or just a release valve for the verbal pressure that builds up in my skull. But that’s why I started to write songs — to sing the words I write. I still do it for those reasons, but as I consumed and studied music, I began to understand the connection that a song can build between people — between the listener and the composer, but also between friends, lovers, and total strangers. Now I do it for that, too.

What’s your latest project? Tell us everything we need to know.
My latest project is my first full-length solo album Kings For Sale. It is a nine-song album that lasts approximately 45 minutes front to back. I wrote or co-wrote six of the nine songs. It is available as a compact disc, a long-play 12” vinyl record that is formatted to be listened to at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute on a high-fidelity record player, or as an imaginary result of a specific combination of ones and zeros in a digital file that people can stream or download using their computer processing systems. Kings For Sale was recorded over three days in November 2020 (AND NO ONE GOT COVID) at Welcome to 1979 Studio in Nashville and was produced by Oz Fritz and engineered by he and Jeremy Bernstein. The album was then mixed by Mark Robinson and mastered by Charlie Rauh. I was blessed by the performances of the following phenomenal humans contributing their talents to these songs: Daniel Seymour, Seth Fox, Laura Rabell, Tommy Stangroom, Cary Hudson, Patricia Billings, Ben Babylon, Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, Adam “Ditch” Kurtz, Joey Dykes, Blaise Hearn, Kristen Englenz, Wess Floyd and Mike Stokes. In my opinion, this is a great album, and mainly because of the contributions of those people. This is also a very personal album. I had a list of several things that were very important to me to accomplish artistically and musically with this album, and I feel that I succeeded with a little help from my friends. I could talk about this record for days, but I’ll just say that I am very excited to share it.

What truly sets you apart from other artists?
Finding it difficult to accurately answer this question without the answer morphing into a professional wrestling hype speech, or that being over-corrected into false modesty, I can only state that I believe the answer to that question is only possible to answer in the language of music. Listen to it and tell me, please.

How will my life improve by listening to your music?
First of all, you will hear stellar performances by the individuals mentioned above. Otherwise, I think that the different approach and perspective that we gave to the sounds of these songs in the studio can give a listener a different mental image and emotional response than they’ve had before. And I think the same is true with the lyrics. And, you’ll know more about me, if that is of any interest to you.

Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played.
The first song I ever wrote was a religious song. I actually came across the lyrics recently. It’s very evangelical and riddled with glowing war imagery. It really was a bit shocking to see that. But upon reflection, it was 1991; America had just started the Gulf War; I was going to Southern Baptist church services twice a week at least. It makes sense now, but it was definitely sobering to see those words of that twisted and warped adolescent mind. The first gig I ever had (outside of singing in church) was with my band in high school. We were called Mulligan Stü. We had two original songs I had written (about girls instead of religiosity) and a lot of covers. We talked the manager of the Book-A-Million coffee shop (Joe Muggs, I believe) into letting us play there. It was great and we felt like bona fide rock stars (other than the one guy in our band who was an adult and had been in bands for a long time – he was relatively unimpressed). After a few times, our more raucous friends and supporters behaved poorly enough that the arrangement eventually ended.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you have given?
BEST: Dollar Book Floyd. 206 Front, Hattiesburg, Miss. 12/31/2001. We played at the wonderful, now sadly closed, restaurant in downtown Hattiesburg on New Year’s Eve. It was a fun crowd, drinks flowing, and friends all around. Cary Hudson, one of my musical heroes (who also plays guitar and harmonica on Kings For Sale) opened up the show acoustically, and that made me feel like a rock star. We played a great fun set that closed with Auld Lang Syne, and where we were playing for this particular special occasion was like 20 feet above the crowd. It was cool.
WORST: Afton Wolfe, Charlie Rauh, and Craig Schenker. Sometime in the fall of 2008. The Rock Bar, Nashville, Tenn. It was a seven-band bill at a bar in downtown Nashville that has long since disappeared. They tried to be a rock/alternative/original club in the middle of the honky-tonks. This was just a few years before the ABC show Nashville started and downtown Nashville became an adult-alcoholic theme park. Anyway, we were supposed to play second, and I tended bar at a spot around the corner. So I had friends hanging out to see the set at both places, and I was going back and forth between as we conceded our spot to one act after another until we were playing last — “deadlining,” as we call it here in Nashville. At every stop, it seemed someone had a shot of Jack Daniel’s ready for me. So, by the time we got on the stage, the crowds of friends had coalesced in front of the stage, and I was beyond drunk. Craig and Charlie tried to save the show, but once I lost consciousness, there wasn’t much they could do. Sorry, fellas.
MOST MEMORABLE: Bill’s 3rd Wheel. Keesler Airforce Base Recreation Complex. Sometime in the summer of 1997. Bill’s 3rd Wheel was a cover band I was in with the younger members of Mulligan Stü. We were named after a guy we all knew named Bill who swore he had three testicles and would brag about them and pull them out in front of people. It was later revealed that his deformity was a hernia. Anyway, our four-hour set was loaded with testoste rock-rap of the late ’90s — Rage Against The Machine, Sublime, 311, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the like. During that show, we played about five RATM songs to boozed-up grunts on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The memory of these guys singing along to every word of these Rage songs that were, in no subtle or nuanced way, condemning the military industrial complex and these guys’ entire existence was profound. I brought a guy up there who was energetically singing along in his camo to sing a couple of the lyrics, just to see him look from the stage down to the crowd — wherein there had to be at least one superior officer to him — and say “A yellow ribbon, instead of a swastika.” I think a couple of members of the audience finally caught on that I was trying to find more ways to make fun of them subtly, and after the show, things got tense for a minute with a couple of the more inebriated heroes of the crowd.

What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen?
BEST: Star Anna. The Seasons Performance Hall, Yakima, Wash. April 2017. There are so many performances that could be considered the “best” I’ve seen — fantastic musicianship by blues and jazz greats, shows by my favorites from my youth like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, The Lemonheads, Pixies, etc … But, because maybe not enough people have heard her music, and if one more person checks her out because of this, that would be brilliant, so I’m picking this one. In 2017, I was living across the country from my friends and family in a town with great beer but not much else. A good friend had just passed away back in Nashville (Billy Wayne Goodwin Jr., who penned Cemetery Blues), and I wasn’t financially capable of going to his memorial services. I was down. One of the few people I knew in Yakima suggested I check out their town venue and recommended Star Anna, who I had never heard of. I went by myself and sat in the church-style pews that made the scene more like going back to the Southern Baptist churches of Mississippi than the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. But I was simply blown away. She played and sang by herself on the stage. Her songs were beautiful and passionate, and her performance was intense and vulnerable. It was exactly what my soul needed. A month from then I would be laid off from my job and headed back to Nashville, but I made a couple of friends in Yakima, and I saw that show.
WORST: Couldn’t/wouldn’t say. If I didn’t enjoy it, I’m sure I just didn’t get it.
STRANGEST: I stumbled into a Neal Pollack performance in Oxford, Miss., in 2003, when I was going through a really surreal time in my life. It was not planned, but I ended up going to the show on an impulse with a friend I was trying to help through a kind of psychotic break at the time. This friend confronted Pollack after his set. If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Pollack, I recommend looking into him and considering how this interaction must have gone. To his credit, Mr. Pollack seemed to understand what was happening relatively quickly and avoided us, but his set back when he was promoting his really funny book (which I purchased at the show) Never Mind The Pollacks, was something to behold.
MOST MEMORABLE: Tom Waits. Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tenn. Aug. 5, 2006. The greatest venue and the greatest songsmith in America, in my humble opinion. Started with Make It Rain, played mostly post-’84/Kathleen Brennan-era stuff, with some older stuff like Blue Valentine and Tom Traubert’s Blues, and ended with Day After Tomorrow as the last encore. Front row center of the balcony, where it almost feels like you’re on top of the stage.

What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
“Would” is a pretty long list, I’m sure. I would give anything a try. If anyone wants to collaborate with me, it’s typically just a matter of scheduling. I like to collaborate and fellowship with those who make music. That’s such a surprisingly small percentage of people, and they share one of the most important things to me in common. So I don’t really care if you’re bro-country, K-pop, jazz, blues, or children’s tunes, if you’re on the side of creating music, and you believe in the humanity and dignity of all people, I’ll collaborate with you if I can. Now, to the spirit of the question, who would I want to collaborate with if I could, that list is also long, but at or near the top of it is Björk. I would absolutely love to watch her mind work in person while creating music.

What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
I think people are sometimes surprised that I am a pretty big fan of rap music. I had a Slick Rick cassette single that I smuggled past more intolerant members of my family when I was 7. I hid it in a Toto cassette sleeve. Children’s Story was my introduction, and I studied it (I still know every word by heart). MF DOOM was the GOAT.

Tell us a joke.
A young school-age polar bear comes home from school one day and he asks his mother “Mom, are we really polar bears?” She says, “Yes, of course.” “Ok. Thanks,” he replies. A couple of days later, he comes home and asks his dad, “Dad, are you sure we’re really polar bears?” “Yes, son. Of course we are.” This goes on for weeks. Every few days he asks his parents, his older sister, his aunt, uncle and grandfather the same questions: “Are we really polar bears?” “I just can’t believe it. Are you sure we’re polar bears?” Finally, one day his father responds, “Son, you know we are polar bears. I’ve told you over and over again. Why do you keep asking this?” “BECAUSE I’M FUCKING FREEZING!”

What useful (or useless) skills do you have outside of music?
I once beat Super Mario Brothers with my toes when I was bored playing hooky.

What do you collect?
I’ve moved too many times to have any admirable/pathetic collections. But since I’ve been married, my wife has begun collecting Toby mugs, and I have started a modest but growing collection of baseball bobble heads. So our apartment is full of creepy unnatural smiling faces.

What would you like to be reincarnated as?
It would be hard not to rebuy on homo sapiens (or whatever comes next), but I don’t think I could resist being able to fly. So, I’m going to say an owl. I don’t like flying with the sun in my eyes, and I love the stars.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness / total misery?
Perfect happiness is a new pair of socks every day. Total misery is commercials between songs.

What’s your greatest regret?
A three-way tie between starting college, starting smoking, and starting Game of Thrones.

What are you afraid of?
Inertia.

What would the title of your autobiography be?
Excess in Moderation.

Who should play you in the movie of your life?
Sam Rockwell is the only film actor with the range.

What’s your motto?
Don’t put off til tomorrow what you can put off til next week.

What’s always in your refrigerator?
It’s a recent development, but since the pandemic, I’ve been making my own cold brew, so now there is always cold brew, almond milk and simple syrup.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I had never studied screenwriting. It’s ruined the vast majority of movies for me.

What’s the silliest thing you believed as a child?
I used to believe that my elementary school teachers lived at and never left the school until I saw Miss Pearson at the Jitney Jungle.

What world record would you like to break?
To lead the largest chorus of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

What’s the best and / or worst advice you were ever given?
Best: Anytime someone has advised me to forgive and/or let go of something — and it will be the best advice I get in the future the next time I get it.
Worst: Everyone who wrote “Never Change” in my high school yearbook.

Listen to Kings For Sale and watch his videos above, learn how to make a Dirty Girl below, and join the Afton Wolfe pack on his website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.