The Magnolia State is arguably one of the most influential when it comes to the origins of music.
Rumblings of country, blues, and rock n’ roll all emanated within Mississippi’s borders as the 20th Century neared the halfway point, and it’s this rich culture that has influenced one of its native sons, Afton Wolfe.
With a cocktail of influence ranging from nearby New Orleans as well, Wolfe’s unique sound captures elements of jazz, soul, blues, rock, folk, and even a little gospel. His signature gritty and growling vocal delivery has become one such voice that is unmistakable when heard. And for the last nearly two decades, he has honed his sound in Music City.
Earlier this year, Wolfe released a cover of one of the catchiest songs of all time in The Faces’ “Ooh La La,” along with notable songsmith Cary Hudson. The track is accompanied by a warm communal music video with a slew of other Nashville pickers and players.
Now, he’s gearing up to release a double single this Friday, May 27th, in “Late Nite Radio” and “So Purple.”
We got the chance to chat with Wolfe to learn more the new singles, what lies ahead, and much more.
So it’s been about a year since we last talked when you released your previous album, Kings For Sale. What have been some highlights for you in the past year musically or otherwise?
That it’s only been a year since Kings For Sale was priming for release is astounding. A lot has happened since. Went on a tour run through the Southeast with my pal Kevin Daniel and some great musicians – my first of that kind in over a decade, and that coincided with one of the many re-iterations of the Disease and its corresponding devastation and uncertainty. So that was surreal on a few levels.
I traveled down to Mexico to play the Tropic of Cancer Festival with Cordovas, Marc Ford, Brian Wright, The Charities, Ladycouch, Stone Riot, and a lot of other beautiful people and music. My wife was able to travel there with me, and we had the most amazing time and can’t wait to go back.
I recorded with the great Cary Hudson again. I went down to my hometown of Hattiesburg and celebrated another of my heroes, Mark Mann at a tribute concert for him. I emceed the Get Behind the Mule benefit for Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee. Got to spend the holidays with some family, which was a bigger deal than it would have been other years. Met you at a coffee shop/art show. So much more in and away from music, but those are some highlights.
You’re releasing two new singles, “Late Nite Radio” and “So Purple,” this Friday, May 27th. What made you want to drop two singles at once, and what made these two fit as a pair?
There used to be these things called “45s” where you’d have an A-side and a B-side. I probably had more experience with the format as a “cassingle” but it was the same concept. That fits where I’m at and have been while recording these, introducing myself to new listeners and trying to fill the demand from current fans – get something out that I think they’ll connect to.
Albums can be difficult, long and expensive processes, and I love albums and EPs from artists I love. But it’s well-documented that the landscape of music and music consumption is changing, so my friends and I thought this was a nice balance between putting all of your time and energy into a single song and putting out 5-10 songs probably much later with all that entails. Again, I love albums; I love double albums, and I love concept albums. I will certainly do that again many times. And I also think it’s sometimes appropriate to release just one song, which worked well for “Ooh La La” because it’s a well-known song and it was a duet instead of the more solipsistic and self-indulgent thing I do when it’s just me.
These worked together to me because of their contrasts, both from each other and from my previous discoveries. They both also make me nostalgic for cars and car stereos and long drives switching tapes in the deck.
“[We] found this song while we were shedding our egos in the woods and meeting some fascinating trees. Trees are superb conversationalists – underrated.”
“Late Nite Radio” has a much more adult contemporary ballad feel to it, and seems like a bit of a departure from previous tracks. What was the inspiration and influence behind this track?
This song has a kind of ancient melody that I think I found in a cave a long time ago. It shows a little of the influence that the 90s had on me I think, which I think sometimes I resist precisely because of the influence it had on me; I want to go further to the edges instead of backwards. This song was originally recorded with the rest of the songs that would become Petronius’ Last Meal, but was destroyed or stolen or whatever happened to those lost recordings that made them seemingly vanish from the physical world. I suspect a conspiracy between Nero’s descendants and assorted sheriff’s departments in Mississippi and Tennessee have something to do with it, but I’m still investigating.
I’ve always loved playing and singing this song, and with the tools and musicians I get to work with now, it was the right time to polish it off and put it in a frame again.
And “So Purple” has a more funk and soul groove to it. What can you tell us about this song?
Seth Fox, who plays flute on this song and saxophone on “Late Nite Radio” (as well as being all over Kings For Sale, as a musician and arranger, and being a brilliant and wonderful source of friendship, talent, creativity, and light), and I found this song while we were shedding our egos in the woods and meeting some fascinating trees. Trees are superb conversationalists – underrated.
Red and Blue can represent a great many things, but usually “opposites” – hot and cold, coming towards and moving away, the political fictions spread by corporations and career politicians, etc… Thus, to be “So Purple” is to be centered and open – to not identify yourself with fictions like political opinions, religious beliefs, careers, money, celebrity, or even on a more personal level to let go of your fixations on your emotions and your ego and your sense of “self” in general. We’re all in the same flow of energy and existence, and it’s moving fastest and smoothest forward in the middle of the flow, where the red and the blue come together.
Where were they recorded and who helped them come to life?
These were recorded at Wirebird Productions in Madison, Tennessee. They were produced by Brett Ryan Stewart and feature some folks I’ve worked with a lot – Daniel Seymour on bass, the aforementioned Seth Fox on the woodwinds, and Rebecca Weiner Tompkins playing a six-string violin on “Late Nite Radio” – and some other folks I was thrilled to get to work with for the first time on a recording – Justin Amaral on drums for “Late Nite Radio” and Hayden Cotcher on drums for “So Purple,” Chad Stuible on keys (piano on “Late Nite Radio” and electric piano on “So Purple”), and my lovely wife Robin Wolfe sings with me on “Late Nite Radio.” Both tracks were mastered by Chris Frasco in East Nashville.
“Forcing discovery is a pretty silly paradox once you back away from it and observe; it’s like looking for your car keys as an art form.”
And your previous single, “Ooh La La,” dropped not long ago as well. How did you and Cary Hudson connect, and what made you want to cover this classic Faces tune?
I used to sneak in to watch Blue Mountain shows before I could. I recorded at his cousin’s studio in Monticello, Mississippi, in 2002, and we played a few shows together back then. He’s one of my favorite songwriters and also a kind, greathearted, high-minded soul that I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with.
I saw him playing a solo show, and he did that song, and it was such a chill, beautiful, Cary-esque version that I wanted to put it down, so I asked if he wanted to do it, and he agreed. So, we booked a show for us up in Nashville. He happened to have his daughter, Anna, who is a stunning singer and performer in her own right (the apple fell straight down with respect to talent and presence), and having her be a part of it really added to the vibe and theme of the song.
Can fans expect any/all of these songs on an upcoming EP or LP?
“Ooh La La” was a one-off, for now. But “Late Nite Radio” and “So Purple” are kind of “Act One” of three of an EP that will be coming out in 2023. Act Two will be out in the fall, and Act 3 should be ready to go at the beginning of 2023.
What does a day in the life of Afton Wolfe’s songwriting process look like?
My process is constant. I don’t schedule the creativity, because it’s not creativity to me; it’s discovery. So my process is to pay attention. I look for clues – sometimes words, sometimes rhythms, sometimes melodies – in the material world to open up paths to the precious parts of the spirit realm. But noticing them isn’t the hardest part, and neither is following them.
The hardest part is remembering them long enough to get to paper/pen/guitar/piano to translate them or at least to drive that thin edge of the wedge into them until more exploration can happen. Then, usually daily or more, I go through the things I have been able to catch somehow and see if they pull me any further. Sometimes they pull me towards a verse or melody or lyric, sometimes they pull me to finish two songs in a night. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes I force it, but it’s better when I don’t. Forcing discovery is a pretty silly paradox once you back away from it and observe; it’s like looking for your car keys as an art form.
What are three Nashville institutions you can’t live without?
Well, this town teaches you not to get too attached to anything; we’re losing institutions left and right. But, to name three: The 5 Spot is number one. Before the pandemic, they were one of the best venues in town, and of all the terrible stuff that’s happened over the last couple of years, they have managed to stay focused on what they could control and make better, and they’ve come out of it improved and stronger, and it really is a blessing to what is left of the independent original music scene in Nashville.
It’s not in Nashville proper, but it’s in Davidson County, but Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge has become an institution quickly, because the people that own and run and work at the place are amazing, and they support the community and the music scene. I’ll go with the Sounds next, because I love minor league baseball being in this town. I don’t go to as many games as I’d like to, even though I resolve to make it to more every year, but I just love that it’s here. There’s rumblings that pop up every other year since I got here in 2003 about an MLB expansion here, and it seems evermore likely every time, but I kind of hope that they keep the minor league team instead.
If you could tour with any present-day artist, who would it be and why?
Well, this can’t be authoritative “final answer” truth, because there are so many that I would love to tour with for so many reasons. But as I respond here now, I would love to tour with Animal Collective. I think they are one of a handful of artists pushing the limits of musicality, production, songwriting, and collaboration.
What other goals – musically or otherwise – might you have for the rest of the year?
My goals are just to keep trying to connect with more people through this music I’ve found. I love playing live music, so as much of that as I can do, I will. I have a few project ideas and prospective collaborations I’d love to have time to work on, but you never know when those things will happen, so I don’t want to put anyone on the spot.
Afton Wolfe on Tour
May 25 – Maryville, TN – The Bird and The Book
May 26 – Nashville, TN – The 5 Spot (w/ Dirt Reynolds, Chelsea Lovitt)
May 29 – Louisville, KY – MagBar (w/ Shadwick Wilde, Lacey Guthrie)
June 2 – Buffalo, NY – Jack Rabbit (w/ Paul Howard)
June 3 – Buffalo, NY – The Cave (opening for The Kathryn Koch Band)
June 4 – Hoosick Falls, NY – Unihog (opening for Eastbound Jesus)
June 6 – New Haven, CT – Stella Blues
June 8 – Newmarket, NH – Stone Church
June 9 – New York, NY – Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 3)
June 10 – Norwood, MA – Fallout Shelter (Extended Play)
June 11 – Rockville, MD – Hank Dietle’s Tavern
June 13 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle
June 14 – Knoxville, TN – WDVX Blue Plate Special (12pm)
June 14 – Knoxville, TN – Preservation Pub (9pm)