Willi Carlisle drove here, all the way from Fayetteville, Arkansas, in a red Baptist Church van. Carlisle came with five instruments, masks, a mechanical panorama and a sock puppet. He also came with a story to tell at the 2017 PortFringe Festival this week.
“We’re here to perform ‘There Ain’t no More,’ which is my one-man folk operetta,” Carlisle told me while sitting on the bandstand in Deering Oaks Park. He was holding a banjo.
“It tells the story of a dying folk singer’s last performance,” he said.
Carlisle, who’s got an MFA in poetry, wrote the play. It combines Ozark Mountain tall tales, American folk music legends, and a bit of vaudeville. In it, the folksinger character struggles with his past. He wonders what’s worth remembering — and what’s better off forgotten.
“What happens to all the good stuff if it doesn’t get remembered? What happens to all the good square dances, what happens to the pot lucks?” said Carlisle. “He also comes to terms with many of the things he’s done in his life that aren’t so good.”
Carlisle said he didn’t grow up with folk music. It’s something he had to seek out from old-timers and others willing to teach him. The play grew out of his desire to do something with the old-ways knowledge he’d gained.
“It’s based on everything from square dances to fiddle tunes to actual interviews that I did in the Ozarks,” he said, “interviews with people like weavers and chair makers… I wanted to make a microcosmic world where many of the things I find both beautiful and problematic could be explored.”
Carlisle is on a tour this summer, along with his director, Joseph Fletcher. They’re taking the show to several fringe festivals across the country and at least two other venues in Maine. They’ve already picked up audience and critics awards at the Orlando and Tampa fringe festivals.
“At its core, it’s supposed to be a very fun, cathartic experience for audiences,” he said. “It’s supposed to get them singing and it’s supposed to get them thinking.”
See “There Ain’t No More” at PortFringe this week at Empire on Congress Street on Thurs. at 7 p.m., Fri. at 10:30 p.m. and Sat. at 1:45 p.m. Tickets are $10. You can also catch the show in Eastport on June 27 and Bass Harbor on July 3.