J.P. Harris and his country road show keep alive the traditions of a grand musical genre.
Three things strike me about J.P. Harris – his beard, which is big, the rich timbre of his voice, and his commitment to the traditions of the Golden Age of country music. Not even thirty years of age, J.P. Harris and his band, The Tough Choices, are criss crossing the highways and byways of this country – they have played from coast to coast in just the last couple months – playing music that is three plus decades old. J.P.’s music is pedal steel and cigarette smoke, chicken wire and scuffed bar room floors, not the processed pablum that dominates modern country radio. J.P. just released his first record, I’ll Keep Calling, and Trail Mix features the title track this month. I recently caught up with J.P. to chat about the new record and good country music.
BRO – At its core, what makes a great country song?
JP – It’s funny that you would ask that, as I was just thinking about this while driving around Nashville the other day. I was thinking that the thing that catches everybody about country music is the emotion that is imparted in it. Excitement, crazy wildness, love, anger, despair – there is this whole array of emotion that draws people to country music. And the key to making a good country song is making it simple. It’s kind of like being a preacher man; you have to take a complex emotional concept and simplify it so anyone can access it and understand it. That is truly what is at the heart of a good country songwriter and a good country song. I like to think of a good country song as real good, simple sermon for the people.
BRO – Who are your country heroes?
JP – The singers and songwriters that I have listened to the most and that have really influenced me are George Jones, Del Reeves, and Merle Haggard. Those three have always had a really good mix of irony, sarcasm, and a good grasp of their singing and how they can pierce a heart with an arrow – how they can really drive something home in a simple way. George represents to me the untouchable enigma; that guy had one of the worst reputations in country music. He’d fire bands on stage, show up late, show up drunk, just a whole slew of bad judgment. But he was George Jones. That’s what he did. He had the golden voice and the perfect approach. Put him behind a microphone and all of his bad decisions were suddenly forgotten. Merle Haggard was the real deal. He grew up poor – maybe even in a box car – and spent some time in jail, just hard scrabble post-Depression California living. He was fearless in his songwriting. He always wrote edgy material. I admire that he was a rebel. He was never one of these flag-waving Nashville pop country jerk offs. He was making records with Willie Nelson, working with David Allan Coe, and was always sort of a fringe element. And Del Reeves was just a fun loving guy who wrote hysterical songs about girl watching and truck driving. Generally, he was just a super sweet fellow who cared more about being just a country singer. He cared about keeping the old traditions alive when he has television show – he’d bring Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe out during an era when everything in country music was getting really cheesy. If I could ball bits of these three guys together, I would die a happy man.
BRO – You just used the term “Nashville pop country jerk offs.” Should I bother asking you your take on the world of modern country music?
JP – I’ve been known to be pretty outspoken about my opinion of modern pop country radio music. I can make some pretty tongue-in-cheek comments about it being filth or garbage, but the truth is that there are some pretty good players out there. I’ve lived in Nashville for a while and have met folks that play with these CMT- grade characters, and these guys and gals are good people. There is some of that stuff I like. Brad Paisley is a killer Telecaster player. But it doesn’t mean I think he is tasteful about what he plays all the time, and it doesn’t mean my opinion on folks like him is going to change that much, because I think they are degrading the name of country music. They are playing rock and roll. They are playing pop. Just because you sing about drinking or about a truck and you put a cowboy hat on doesn’t mean it is country music. The idea that you can dumb down country music for the masses by melding it with other styles of music to make it popular on the radio is just offensive to me. Take Trace Adkins – he’s a great singer, and he’s funny. But I don’t think I’d ever want to go see him play and I would never go so far as to say he is an authentic country singer. He sings pop country music. In this day and age, there needs to be a real distinction there. Old school country characters that have been playing the music I play for a lot of years, guys like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, and Wayne Hancock, never took the poison golden apple. I think these pop country guys could have stayed on the route of real old school country music, stuff that is real and simple, but they all get tempted by the big record deals and fancy mansions. Now, Lord knows I want to get paid real money for what I do, but I don’t feel like sacrificing authenticity and genuineness in my music to do that.
BRO – Is it more about creating a product and less about creating good music?
JP – That’s exactly what it is. That’s what really bums me out about the whole thing. The are working on creating an image and an ideal. What these people are doing is preying on everyone’s poor desires. A lot of folks that listen to country music are hard working American people, making a living at the auto garage or answering the phone. And these pop country folks are doing the same thing that glam rock was doing in the 80s. They are wanting these people to believe that if they listen to this music, they’ll get nearly topless girls and big ass F-250s with lift kits and smokestacks, and every once in a while they’ll throw in a line about daddy’s farm. Even if the music is good, the image and lifestyle that these country people are throwing out there is just not right. It’s not accessible. It’s not something that people are going to attain. But that’s how music has been sold over the last 35 years. Country music was never intended to be that.
BRO – Is there anyone out there doing country music the right way?
JP – There’s a ton of people out there doing it the right way. The unfortunate part is that there aren’t a lot of us out there on the road doing it, so a lot of people don’t get to hear it and find out about it. Dale Watson and Wayne Hancock have been out there for years. I have just been turned on to Whitey Morgan, and I am really digging what he does. Even stuff in the more indie country and alt-country vein is pretty cool, guys like Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses. And I love Billy Joe Shaver and Ray Wylie Hubbard. They are still out there beating the pavement. There is a good undercurrent of solid country singers and bands out there touring. And they are doing it for the same reason I am doing it. They believe in the country gospel and have turned their lives into a road show. You have take it from town to town. One of the coolest things I hear at a show is, “You know, I didn’t even know I liked country music because I have never heard real country music.” These other guys I mentioned hear the same thing. That is what these younger guys are really going for – to turn people back on to country music.
BRO – Tell me about the new record.
JP – Man, I am pretty proud of it. I didn’t know if it was any good by the time I was done with it because I had listened to it about 700,000 times and I had zero objective perspective. But it’s doing really well and we are getting really good feedback about it. After three years of touring with just a little EP, I am happy to have a solid release to show the world what it is I am doing. But I am glad it took this long to get in the studio to get this done. I still have so much to learn about being a country singer and writing country songs. I am glad I was unwillingly forced to wait that long before I could release a record. I know it is better now than it would have been if I had released it a couple years ago.
BRO – We are featuring the title track on this month’s Trail Mix. I hope I am not projecting here – or maybe I hope I am projecting – but it sounds like a tune most guys can relate to.
JP – Oh, yeah. Guys and gals. I wrote that song about a woman who is still a good friend of mine. We had a short relationship. I was working up in New England working on a barn and staying this little old farmhouse attic and trying to visit this gal on the weekends. I tried calling her one night after a pretty bad day and never got in touch with her. So I just I kept calling this girl and kept getting her answering machine. We all know what drunk dialing is. I’ve done it a time or two in my life, up at 2 A.M. calling that ex-girlfriend from a year ago and sobbing about taking me back. If you haven’t done it, you have at least thought about it. I got to thinking about this idea that you call someone on the phone over and over again and you think they are going to finally answer. You are reaching out to someone, but they don’t have to answer the phone. They don’t have to take you back or tell you that they still love you. Hearing that recorded voice on the other end of the line asking you to leave a message can be one of the worst things to hear when your heart is breaking.
J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices are headed west for the month of June, with dates in Louisiana, Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado on the schedule. They’ll be back in the Southeast in July. Catch them when you can and, in the meantime, order a copy of the new record at www.ilovehonkytonk.com.