JP Harris and the Tough Choices 'Home Is Where the Hurt Is' - Cow Island

The bearded Mr Harris stares out from the cover illustration like some doomed 19th century outlaw. Indeed his country music - and this is country music straight up - may well fall into that category too, if for no other reason than he plays it as it should be played; with no concession to current demands and fads. The feisty label Cow Island is known for sticking to its guns and delivering the hard stuff. Together they have delivered one of the year’s best albums.

Harris is a native of Montgomery, Alabama who has travelled around a lot before playing country music with his band the Tough Choices. They released their debut, I’ll Keep Calling, through Cow Island in 2012 and it won the Independent Music Awards best country album of the year. This album should equal that at very least. Its 10 tracks are all written by Harris and you can hear his influences blend into something fresh and vibrant. The music is part of a living tradition that, while the lifestyle and locations of its audience may have changed, the sentiments and motivation have changed little.

The album is written, produced, arranged and sung by Harris who has employed his band, including co-producer Adam Meisterhans - a man who understand the dynamic of country guitar - with the latest incarnation of the Tough Choices which includes steel player Brett Resnoick, bass and drummer Timmy Findlen and Jerry Pentacost, with Mark Sloane on keyboards with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show). Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) joins then on sax for the final track Young Women and Old Guitars. Other guests include backing singers Nikki Lane, Shelly Colvin and Ashley Wilcoxson. The whole kit and caboodle were recorded by co-producer Justin Francis in Nashville.

The themes are heartbreak, longing and hankering for love. The album opens at a dance floor pace with Give  a Little Lovin’ and is followed in similar style by A Breaking Heart, The next song up is one about open roads and romances and sounds just like an old friend giving advice. The title track is full of sadness and sorrow perfectly delivered by Harris’ finely wrought singing, full of emotion and pain, and the music matches every beat of the broken heart. Maria tells of the woman of that name and how if she were still close, she would be his woman of choice.

The road warrior’s life is the theme of the self explanatory Truckstop Amphetamines and it again reeks of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude and is more effective in its slower pace and thoughtfulness . The final track is short but effective and closes the album with the aforementioned Young Woman and Old Guitars, a kind of a ‘these are my favourite things’ song. This is a balanced and enjoyable album that easily defines county with a hardcore honky tonk attitude as opposed to what currently passes for ‘country’ in the charts, although one can take heart that Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson made it into the top twenty of the Billboard Country album chart. Home is where the Hurt Is should definitely be there too.

JP Harris and the Tough Choices 'I'll Keep Calling' - Cow Island

The latest release from that bastion of all things real in country music, Cow Island Records, is this debut album from JP Harris and his tight Tough Choices band. The songs are bar-room missives on heartbreak, hitting-the-road and the high hopes for love, life and, all too often, lament. The songs are all written by Harris, who also produced the album, he understand this music in a way that so many on Music Row don't. I'll Keep Calling includes a surfeit of pedal steel, fiddle, baritone guitar and twang - all good. Harris sings in a voice that belies his 29 years. He has lived his life in a way that understands what these songs can mean to all those who hear (and equally have lived) them. A standout is the ballad Just Your Memory, "that's just your memory keeping me company", it uses a classic country premise to reveal loss and regret, as does the break-up bargaining of Take It All. This album is full of great and timeless examples of this music and despite some of the songs negative subject matter the music is vital, vibrant and entirely uplifting. Return To Sender is another song that will have feet tapping and faces smiling. With Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives Nashville has one such flag flyer for all honky-tonks heroes, but now the city has another in Harris and his band, also based in Nashville, but traveling all over the States and playing in bars and small festivals. It's not too big a leap to say that these guys aren't far behind in terms of overall quality and commitment. There is a humour at work here alongside the perceived pain and that makes I'll Keep Calling an album that all hardcore country fans should immediately check out. This music, like all good independent music, needs as much support as it can get these days and this is just one deserving cause. There are many great bands out there that need to be heard. I'll Keep Calling is a damn fine country album, and in this day and age that matters.