"Save for a few Randy Travis gems and Alan Jackson hits, this flim-flam is pathetic, at best."
Imagine if a country music critic had the nerve to be this honest about the state of the industry. No more returned calls from publicists, no artist access, no press passes. Hello, unemployment line. Or if you're lucky, maybe a job hacking for Travis or Jackson.
But that quote isn't from a music journalist — it's from the bio for J.P. Harris, a no-nonsense preacher from the Primitive Church of Honky-Tonk. Harris and his band the Tough Choices have a glorious message of salvation: Shut off your radio, pick up his new album, and you never have to listen to that pathetic flim-flam again.
In case you're not getting the message yet, you will when you go to his website, ilovehonkytonk.com. (You'd think some domain-name speculator would have snapped up that URL long ago.) And if you're feeling especially slow on the pickup today, the song titles — "Two for the Road," "Gear Jammin' Daddy," "The Day You Put Me Out," "Return to Sender" (not the Elvis hit) — should drive the point home.
Harris' brand-new first album I'll Keep Callin' (Cow Island Music) is an impressive debut, and faithfully hews to his two self-proclaimed rules: Keep it country, and keep it simple. What Brown's Diner and Dino's are to burgers, Harris is to country music. You'll find no auditory arugula here, no sonic pesto. Maybe the musical equivalent of grilled onions and a slice of tomato, but that's about it.
"Oh, I'll take one for my heartaches, and two for the road," Harris sings to start the proceedings. On the word "one," the band kicks in with a lively country shuffle, percolating like a coffee pot in a Lubbock diner circa 1957. Seven seconds into the record, you're pretty sure where this steady-chuggin' freight train is headed — straight down the line. No detours into soul-sucking pop country or ironic hipster posturing.
Incidentally, Harris knows a thing or two about freight trains. After a childhood bouncing around the country as his parents looked for work (including a couple years in "a little shitty town called Apple Valley, between Las Vegas and Los Angeles"), he left home and started hopping trains — at the ripe age of 14.
"I just kind of took off," says Harris, who moved to Nashville last year after 10 years in Vermont. "As soon as I left home, my folks split up. Things were coming apart at the seams anyway, so they didn't spend any time pursuing me. But I didn't discuss it beforehand." He says he was probably on 100 trains or more between the ages of 14 and 17. (If that sounds like Dylan-worthy self-mythologizing, it's worth noting that he discussed freight-hopping only after a reporter inquired about his early years — and there's no mention of riding the rails in his bio. Talking to Harris, you get the feeling he's not embellishing.)
It's hard to pick standouts on I'll Keep Calling, because it's so consistent. "Return to Sender" is a bustling train-beat shuffle reminiscent of Johnny Cash's "Big River." "Gear Jammin' Daddy" is exactly what you'd expect: an 18-wheel tribute in the spirit of Junior Brown's "Semi-Crazy." With its dreamy pedal steel and horse-hoof backbeat, "Take It All" is a classic cowboy lament that starts off with one of Harris' many fine turns of phrase: "I don't care about our liquid assets / You know I drank them all, the day you closed the book."
The songwriting is strong throughout the album. Harris has a knack for old-school country witticism without ever crossing into too-clever-for-his-own-good indulgence, and that's a fine line to walk. He's a great singer too, with a tuneful baritone in the lineage of Waylon, Johnny and George.
Of course, it helps to have a crack studio band, which Harris does in spades. Glenn Fields (drums) and Eric Frey (bass and backing vocals) are terrific, particularly on the Western swing track "Take It Back" — and that makes sense, since they are two-fifths of the excellent Cajun/Western swing band Red Stick Ramblers. Asa Brosius and Charlie Bell share the pedal steel duties, and guitarist Chris Hartway is terrific, recalling classic twang masters like Red Volkaert and Bill Kirchen. Joel Savoy of the renowned Savoy Family Cajun Band plays fiddle. (Savoy engineered and mixed the record as well.)
Last week, I'll Keep Calling was sitting at No. 8 on the Roots Music Report's "Top 50 True Country" radio chart. As of Monday, it had moved up to No. 1 — ahead of folks like Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Glenn Campbell and The Louvin Brothers. And it came out less than two months ago. "I'm not really sure what it all means," Harris says, laughing.
But clearly, something's happening. If the early reaction to I'll Keep Calling is any indication, Harris is well on his way to a fruitful honky-tonk career in the vein of hard-touring mainstays like Dale Watson and Wayne Hancock. And you can only assume that Harris' lyrics to "Gear Jammin' Daddy," — "I've been drivin' all night and my eyes are sore / I'm a gear-jammin' daddy, keep the hammer to the floor" — are going to ring a whole lot truer with each passing year.
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