JP Harris was born in 1983 in Montgomery Alabama, which claims it is Hank Williams’ Snr. hometown. “You know the song (Kaw Liga) about a wooden Indian statue? Well my parents used to go to a diner where they had that wooden Indian that he wrote the song about standing outside”. But it was in punk rock where JP first made a musical mark and that experience was a formative one. “I’m still a punk rocker at heart. I think that the DIY ethos of punk music and culture is what really stuck with me in my later life. It drove all the decisions I made outside of music. I feel fortunate to have grown up in my teenage years in punk. I gained a lot of useful life skills from it”. I wondered; was he influenced by the 80’s cowpunk movement at all? “Well my whole crew listens to a lot of different stuff and there was so much of that hillbilly/outlaw stuff crossing over into what we did. There was a peripheral rockabilly scene but we were really into a more 70s and 80s stuff from England and Sweden. I’d heard country music a lot when I was growing up. But it was when I left home at 14 that I started to identify more with the Johnny Cash and Hank Williams message. It started to make sense to me a little more”.
We talked about our respective musical paths and my involvement with punk through my band The Radiators from Space. I told him of my journey to country via punk and electronic music. JP explained how for a time he moved away from loud electric guitars and listened to a lot of old time music. “There is an inter-connectedness with all times of music, but there was a time when I was disillusioned with punk. I think I grew out of some of it while other parts of it I still absolutely loved. It was more I grew out of the culture of inaction in the scene. There was a lot of rhetoric that wasn’t backed up. So when I was 16, I left cities for good”. He spent the next 13 years living in the country where he did a variety of jobs including logger and carpenter as well as working with heavy machinery such as bulldozers, and also a time sheep herding for some Navajo ladies. In the live show he spoke of an injury sustained while trying to multi-task - hauling a bulldozer balanced with logs while trying to text a girlfriend!
He listened to lot of early country music and immersed himself in old time string bands and at 18 he started to play the banjo. He also then worked with a banjo maker learning how to build them. “That became an all consuming life for me. All I wanted to do was go to fiddler’s conventions all summer long and play music till the sun came up. So, at that time, I was really opposed to plugging anything in, even people putting pickups on their guitars”. He played at a lot of square dances playing around the single condenser microphone the way it had been done in the past. “I reset my musical clock. I’d started with music from the Civil War and earlier and progressed through the Carter Family. It’s a very powerful community and I basically forged my career out of that old time music. The more I became a singer the more I began to get into the country and bluegrass stuff and that progressed into the kind of country I play now”. That sound incorporates some western swing and 70s country as well as Bakersfield, outlaw and truckin’ elements. It is an overview of classic country at its best.
JP began to notice that many of the people he played with also played with other bands. He has toured as a duo with Chance McCoy opening for Old Crow Medicine Show. “I became aware that they played old time as an inner passion but had other options to play”. He knew that he had a base of people who potentially would come and see him because of his reputation in the old time music scene. That spurred him back to the idea of playing electric music again. He misses that side of his music but will doubtless revisit it again. I mentioned how JD Wilkes had balanced his work as a solo artist with the Dirt Daubers and The Legendary Shack Shakers. “Over the years people have asked if I’m ever going to incorporate any of the old time stuff into the set. But while I love that stuff, it was more to do with the community aspect and [while] I do appreciate the people who perform it professionally, it has never called to me although I had an old time band just before I started this”. He had realized that in playing the acoustic music outside of that community, he was beginning to water it down. “We were used to playing banjo tunes for 5 to 10 minutes and now they need to be around 2 minutes. When me and Chance got together to tour that was a way to step back into that, but with his schedule with Old Crow it’s a little harder”. But it was an opportunity for both to step away from what they were doing with their main bands. “It was a way to reconnect with that music”.
Bluegrass and old-time have obvious similarities but JP reasoned that bluegrass was more of a performance format while old time was meant more for dancing to. Both, for him, are more oriented to a back porch setting that to bars and smaller venues. He sees the music growing as an important part of the music developing and noted the inclusion of drums to the Old Crow lineup as adding a new dimension to their sound. As is the bringing in of pedal steel - an instrument I have seen but not heard in the mix at recent more mainstream acts gigs. “Jimmy Martin used have a snare drum but then there was this weird new traditions thing that didn’t allow it”.
Much of the old time music was used as dance music and what he does with The Tough Choices is similar. Indeed back in the States people nearly always dance at the gigs. Not so here though, as we are often more reserved at gigs and being seated doesn’t usually help. But there is another side to what JP is doing. “For me playing country music is that it is just as important that it be a community function as it was when I played old time music”. He thought that musicians often evolve by pushing the limits of what they do, and try to reach a broader audience by branching away from traditional county which is something that, at this point, he has no intention of doing. We discussed the current crop of major label acts who add rap and soulless rock to their definition of country, while alt. country acts should also shoulder some responsibility for taking the music away from its roots. Some of those albums were really just singer/songwriter style, which may have included a banjo or steel guitar, but that didn’t make them country. Country really can’t stray too far from its roots before it becomes something else. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it belongs in another genre. JP thought that “over the last three or four years I have really softened that edge, it’s the same detriment to a style of music that to reference it by name but to water it down by bringing in a lot of other influences so it barely resembles the original thing. Adding a Telecaster doesn’t make a country band in itself, that would be like saying that the Drive by Truckers were a traditional country band which they weren’t. The same thing is true of modern pop country. It would be great if we could name what we do as hillbilly rock or something”.
“The biggest crime in the whole thing and I’m not going to feel bad for myself about it is that there are a ton of people for whom it is almost a family tradition to be country music fans. Their parents and grandparents listened to country music so they’ve just grown with it and they don’t hear it”. He knows that there are a lot of people coming to his shows who tell him they are so sick of what’s being played on country radio, that 1 in every 40 songs is a country song. But he also feels that there may be recognition of the fact that there is an audience for something truer. The success of Sturgill Simpson is an indicator of that. As is Jamey Johnson, who he feels makes music that is very commercial and modern. “There’s a message, a vocal style and a song writing capacity, that is very true to the original themes of country music in what he does even if he has a glossy Nashville production and some rock guitars in there. I think that the doors are going to have to slowly swing open”. Amen to that. JP hopes for a time like that when Dwight Yoakam got through the cracks and showed that there were alternatives to the mainstream that could still sell a lot of records.
There was a time in the 90s that he felt the older generation could hear in Alan Jackson or Randy Travis a continuation of the music they loved, but would now not recognise it at all. I know from experience when you went down to Robert’s back in the day, there were couple in their 90s dancing along side 19 years olds which is something that wouldn’t happen now outside of some small local honky tonk when the right type of band is playing. “Nobody’s grandparents particularly want to listen to Jason Aldean” he opines.
I asked JP about the sort of country he felt most at home with and he said that he’d been aware of the 40s and 50s music for a while and there were a number of bands that reference that era very closely in sound and who were perhaps a little stagnant. He never wants to be pinned down in any one sub genre of county music and he felt that in some ways he has ruined old time music for himself. He explained “Once I went on tour with this old time band in bars and clubs and I realised that while this is the environment I wanted to be in, these instruments don’t have the power to hold their own in these places”. He had been listening to a lot more of the 60s and 70s country and it had opened his mind up to that music. “I feel that the 60s are really the heyday”. We talked about Buck and Merle and that Bakersfield sound. (JP Harris has in recent time become friendly with the great Red Simpson and plays Simpson’s songs in his live set). “You had hillbilly bop and honky tonk two-step which then led, at the tail end of the 60s, to the outlaw sound”. The airwaves were open to hard Buck Owens next to the Beatles next to Otis Redding on the radio; an openness that now, sadly, for the most part has been lost. It was an era he felt that revolutionised and revitalised the music. Times were changing and that was having an effect on songwriting too “the lyricism then became a little deeper, people were better educated so writers could be a little more analogous about the stories they were telling”.
On his new album there is one song he said the band call the “arena hit” because it could be a George Strait song from 1983. Then there are songs that sound like they could be from 1962. He doesn’t feel the need to pigeonhole himself to one sound. He hopes that the recent success of the indie label which released Simpson, an act whose music he really admires, might become even more so when his next album on Atlantic Records is released. “I think Sturgill covered a wide range of topics and sounds on both his albums. County music often recycles sounds and themes and there’ve been psychedelic country records in the past, but no one has done that in so long and he did it with a cool, individual approach. He and I had several conversations about the music”.
He concluded by saying “my music is personal and is current. I’m not just trying to recycle the same ideas. The title track of my first record is about an answering machine. Back then in 1960 when the sound of that song was set, an answering machine didn’t exist”. In other words this is an evolving music, one that remains true to JP Harris, his life and the language and mores of today, yet it would be recognisable to someone who was a fan back in the 1960s. That’s the way it should be.
Interview by Stephen Rapid Text editing by Sandy Harsch Photography by Ronnie Norton