Genuine young classic country artists are as difficult to uncover in recent years as hen’s teeth with ‘country’ music continuing its wretched decline into the dreaded pop crossover so much beloved by the music industry movers and shakers. Artists embracing the ‘outlaw’ country tag thankfully continue to emerge with young ones Colter Wall and Tyler Childers the latest pair to join that club that includes some wonderful ‘I’ll do it my own way’ acts such as Whitey Morgan, Dallas Moore and the commercially successful Chris Stapleton, all representing the male sex.
Not to suggest that female artists aren’t every bit as worthy of the outlaw tag, to do so would be an insult to Elizabeth Cook, Nikki Lane and Lydia Loveless to mention but a few. Unfortunately, breakthrough classic country artists are not emerging in the same numbers, so the discovery a few years back of the young Texan Jason James was a joy to behold to the champions of that genre among us Lonesome Highway purists.
His 2015 self-titled release was uncompromising and no-frills honky tonk, groomed, polished and perfected by years of performing at dance halls and clubs across his home state. It’s more than likely that he would have continued to travel around Texas making a living as a live performer had his mother not taken the bull by the horns and unknown to him sent some demos of his songs to New West Records. Studio sessions were arranged by the label in both Austin and Houston with some crack session players and the results impressed label president John Allen to the extent that he lined up additional studio time in Nashville, to finalise the recording. Three years later and we wondered had James joined the gang of musicians that deliver a once off classic and disappear off the face of the world, until the news filtered through that he was, in fact, about to start work on another album.Lonesome Highway tracked down James to get the lowdown.
We’ve been loving your self-titled album at Lonesome Highway since its release. The whole package unapologetically captures what we consider to be classic country – with two capital C’s - across the twelve tracks. It’s ironic that an album with so much in common with decades past sounds so refreshing! How satisfied were you with the final product?
Ha-ha well, thank you so much! Means a lot. Sonically speaking I had a pretty good vision of what I wanted. That being said it can really be tough to find the right producers that can help manifest your vision into a product. Both John Evans and Keith Gattis knew exactly where to steer the ship when it came time to record. I am happy with the record very much ... considering the length of time in between sessions and all ... I'd say it flows real well. I can tell some things but that's because I was there! But, when I have listened to the record at times it is very fluid. Gattis did a great job in that respect. Not venturing from the overall feel of the record that John Evans had it going in. There was no real ego on the record, it was for the sake of the songs.
You’re beginning working on a follow album. What timescale can we expect?
Pre-production is already under way. We should have the record done by the end of July and a release date is scheduled for late this year or early next.
The last album was recorded in Austin, Houston and Nashville with an impressive line-up off players to say the least. Where will you record this time around?
It was all over the place last time. And yes, I was blown away sitting in the studio with those cats. I've stayed close with most of them too. As honoured as I was to play with those guys I'd hear them shouting after a take "now that's country music!" For as serious as the situation was for me professionally, I've never laughed as much as we did in the studio. It was incredibly light hearted. I think we're going to record in Austin this time with John Evans again.
Will you be using players from your band for the album?
I'm not sure. We may. Depends on scheduling and all. When I'm not on the road with my guys they are making a living playing constantly.
You included a co-write with Jim Lauderdale (Walk Through My Heart) on the album. How comfortable are you writing with others as opposed to working alone?
I wrote that with Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon and it was my first ever co-write with anyone else. Ever. I had no idea what would happen but at least I'd get to hang with those two fellas. Glad we got a song as good as that out of it Lol. I prefer to write myself though. Prolific doesn't always mean great but ... I have a lot to say. I feel possessed at times like I have some deadline to say everything I can say. But, I'm also open to work with others. I've had to learn to not hold my songs so tight to my chest. Other input can be great.
A small number of artists like yourself, Joshua Hedley, Dallas Moore, Zephaniah O’Hora and J.P. Harris are leading the charge in keeping classic country very much alive and kicking. Do you feel that the industry in general is helping or hindering your progress?
I only know Dallas and J.P. personally. But, I will say that those two guys are some of the most talented and hard working men I've ever known. Anything credited to their success has less to do with the industry but, rather them putting their boots on the ground and grinding and putting out the best material they can routinely.
The larger labels are taking note with Atlantic signing Sturgill Simpson and Third Man giving Margo Price and Joshua Hedley deserved support. Does seeing artists like these getting a break keep you enthused?
Uh, it's hard to answer that for me personally. I'll be honest- I have no illusions of ever wanting or really caring to be famous. If that happens and there is a "musical movement" then great! I just enjoy singing and writing and touring and doing things I like to do. Fame comes and goes. That being said- I'm happy for them for sure. And from what I've heard of them and about them they are in it to win it. Score one for the good guys and girls!
Diversities between Texas country and Nashville country have been debated for decades. Do you feel that Texas still recognises and supports ‘real’ country more so than its neighbours?
Yea, that comes up quite a bit. Texas definitely has a lot of dancehalls and county festivals that seem like Mayberry where I play on a trailer and it feels so country. But, I also feel like I haven't been threatened by anyone outside of Texas when I play. I think it's all in your attitude and the way you approach people. We played Chicago recently and everyone loved it. Country music comes from the heart. Not everyone will like it but that's ok. Sometimes I like to stick in Texas because it's my comfort zone. I always feel like someone will make fun of me for being country. That's my own personal issues though (laughs).
Is there much radio support locally for you and your peers?
Oh yea!! I'm played in Texas a lot. In fact, I released just recently a song from the record. "Here Comes The Heartache" it was just put into rotation and it's already climbing the chart. My friends are all on there too.
Like so many younger artists we encounter that are travelling the traditional country path your earlier years involved playing punk and rock. What encouraged you to move towards country?
Lord - I'll be honest. I was so lost for a long time. I was in trouble with the law growing up. Music saved me. I think I liked expressing myself and it just came out in the way of punk. I only played it for such a short time. People have come up to me and I've used the old demos as a frisbee lol. I would cover Hank Williams in the old band(s). When I heard Hank Williams again I realized what my path would be. It directed me here. I owe my life to country music. I love it more than anything and I'll never stray from it.
You’re on the record noting how people at shows tell you they don’t like country music but like what you’re playing, which pretty much sums up the what most people perceive to be country today. Are you finding a younger audience buying into what you’re doing?
Young people all the time come up and tell me they've been a fan for their whole life. I always smile and chuckle. I try to keep the songs simple and catchy so I can see why kids like it. The songs are kinda like nursery rhymes. 20 and 30 something's have also gravitated towards my sound. Young adults who are just now getting a dose of real life and the ups and downs that it throws at them. My music documents loss and the overall struggle. But the melody I try and keep pretty. So, it's a dance in between light and dark. I get people who've had a bit too much to drink and cry at the edge of the stage to "sing their life to em". Of course, my life has been everything but squeaky clean... so maybe they find it comforting to have someone else that has been through it too. We're all on this trip together I suppose. Country music is the misfit. The unwanted, the forgotten but, it's also about salvation. It's real life. Don't try and be a phony son (laughs).
Is the market in Texas big enough for you to survive as an artist like or do you need to establish yourself outside the State?
Oh, this state is huge. Unless you've travelled every bit of it it's hard to fathom at times. I make a living here. But, I'd love to travel and see America and the world. The label I was on kinda tried to keep me only in Texas. I'm not sure why ... but, I got the feeling they didn't see how much people wanted to hear this type of music.
And the European market. There is a hard core following for classic country in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and Holland. Do you expect to tour over here?
Yes Sir! I had a 3-week tour scheduled there and I got no help for tour support and had to back out last minute. After this record is out though I will most definitely be there! I'll start making announcements soon.
Interview by Declan Culliton