“I truly believe my dog saved my life that night.”
Country troubadour J.P. Harris, whose latest record is titled Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing, once found himself in a situation where his life depended on his dog not barking at something.
That story, captured below, is just one of many that Harris spins about his vagabond lifestyle, which began as a teenager when he caught a Greyhound bus bound for Oakland, California, and saw him hopping trains and hitchhiking across the country for much of his early adult life.
Harris has traded the bevy of odd jobs that kept him afloat during his traveling days for life behind a guitar and microphone, belting out vintage country tunes and honky tonk swagger. This latest collection of songs reflect the fantastical nature of their writer – Harris’s life on the road provided him with fodder requisite for crafting unparalleled country yarns.
Take a listen to the new record, and his previous releases while you are it, and then dig deeper into J.P.’s story. His stories are delightfully outlandish and absolutely real, and they bring an authenticity to his songcraft that is desperately lacking in modern country music.
I recently caught up with J.P. to talk about life on a freight train, songwriting that hits close to home, and how that dog once saved his life.
BRO – You hit the road as a teenager. What was the first lesson you learned about life in the great wide open?
JP – Well, to watch my back was the first one. I had a couple close calls at various points, and I learned to size people up and to also keep my mouth shut a little more often. I’m still working on the latter.
BRO – You are the only person I know who has legitimately hopped freight trains. Anything you miss about life on the rails?
JP – There truly isn’t anything that can compare to the thrill of boarding a freight train. All at once, you’re experiencing danger, speed, and freedom. It’s kind of like stealing a ride on the world’s biggest motorcycle with no license or registration. I also believe it’s the most quintessentially American vagabond’s dream. Even the rail cops seem to have a little tinge of envy when pulling you off a train.
BRO – You and I once spent a long time chatting about the state of modern country music. At the time, things seemed dire. Is there cause for hope out there right now?
JP – Well, I must say that country radio has only gotten worse since the last time we talked, but I honestly don’t have the energy to complain that much about it anymore. No time for the negativity, and the bottom line is that there are people out there that legitimately love the music I hate, so it ain’t going anywhere. That said, there’s been a definite upswing in the genre-wide success of Americana, which seems to be a direct reaction to the radio norms. Althought I don’t hear that much new music coming out that could truly be called country in the Americana genre, I think that roots-influenced music has made a superb comeback and proven that it’s much more than a trend in taste or style. I think the success of that broad genre designation has helped turn a lot of folks on to me, as well.
BRO – We are featuring “When I Quit Drinking” on this month’s Trail Mix. Was this a tough one to write?
JP – Yeah, it truly was. And it’s a little hard to play live on some nights, too. I wrote the chorus years ago, but it wasn’t until I’d lived through the story for a while that the verses, and the weight of it, came to me. Good to get it off my chest, though, and it seems to resonate deeply with a lot of my fans, which is priority number one for me.
BRO – Got any good dog stories?
JP – I found a little mutt on the Navajo reservation years ago when I was herding sheep and took her as my own. We had a great ten year run together, traveling all over and riding trains and hitchhiking and whatnot. A bunch of years ago, I was waiting in the CSX Intermodal Yard in Teaneck, New Jersey, trying to catch a high-priority train west. That’s a rough little area, being on the outskirts of New York City. I was sleeping in the bushes just off the tracks with my dog, when she suddenly sat bolt upright and put a paw on me, waking me up. She was a little bit overzealous with her barking sometimes, but this time she just put her hackles up and let out a low, almost inaudible growl and stood stock still. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was almost pitch black, but I suddenly heard footsteps on the ballast and could see about eight guys walking slowly up the side of the stopped train. I watched them start hopping into the 48 and 54 wells – the cars that carry sea-land shipping containers – and heard a few loud clangs. These dudes were certifiable train robbers, busting open containers with crowbars and looking for high dollar goods, and they definitely would have put the hurt one me had they seen me watching them. They might have even killed me. I truly believe my dog saved my life that night.
Yeah, that story got me in the feelies. Makes me want to get home and give my own mutt, Fender, an extra little scruff behind the ears this evening.
Country music fans across the ponds, take heed. J.P. heads to Europe next week for most of the month of November. If he gets close, grab a ticket!
For more information on J.P., the new record, or when he might hit a stage near you, please hitchhike over to his website.
And be sure to check out “When I Quit Drinking,” along with new tunes from Town Mountain, Lauren Morrow, Paul Kelly, and Sarah Borges on this month’s Trail Mix.