Album Review – J.P. Harris “Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man”

For decades, it was known as paying dues. No matter what craft you were looking to ply—music or otherwise—you had to log your 10,000 hours, try your hand at all the tools of a trade, and prove your worth before you were allowed to lumber onto a big stage, or labor under your own banner. And to know where your discipline was going, you had to know where it had been. A reverence for the past was just as important as your ability to prove your worth shepherding it into the future.

Before J.P. Harris announced his presence as one of the most revered independent honky tonkers in country music with his 2012 debut album I’ll Keep Calling, or bolstered this legacy with subsequent releases, spirited live shows and side projects, J.P. did his time traveling to and from old-time and fiddler gatherings in the eastern United States, learning the art of the banjo from the inside out, and not just how to add his own wrinkles to the clawhammer style, but how to build one of the earliest versions of the instrument with an open back and fretless neck, etching his maker’s mark in some two dozen of the instruments at one point.

With his place secured as a Telecaster-slinging and leathery shit kicker of the country music haunts, and just like so many musicians last summer sequestered from the rest of the world, it was the perfect opportunity for J. P. Harris to reconnect with his deep history in old-time with this side project officially called “J.P. Harris’s Dreadful Wind & Rain,” launched with and produced by former Old Crow Medicine Show member Chance McCoy, who also used to run with Harris back in his old-time days.

In many ways, Don’t Marry No Railroad Man is J.P.’s origin story set to song. It may not leap out of your speakers, or go viral on Tik-Tok. But it substantiates the rumors that well before he was cutting electric country records and securing contractors licenses in his second occupation as a seasoned carpenter in Nashville, J.P. Harris was a bonafide dirty hobo hopping freight trains and learning the old-time songs and traditions directly from their sources.

Even for the old-time discipline that looks to preserve the stringband traditions that were forged well before the formal introduction of bluegrass by Bill Monroe, this project feels even more archaic and strict to the style. Where some old time outfits keep the tempo up to keep the legs kicking, J.P. Harris slows it down. Where others fill out the sound with bass fiddle, mandolin chucks, or acoustic guitar rhythm, J.P. and Chance leave it mostly naked. Where some clean up the sound with crack engineers and top flight gear, the natural reverb of the old sharecropper’s shack in West Virginia where they fashioned a studio was the only embellishment afforded to these recordings.

For this approach, J.P. Harris and the listener are granted one of the most authentic and chilling experiences one can find in the old-time disciple, with the Gothic soul of the music palpable in the mood, and the poetry of these traditional tunes rising to the top. It also renders it as one of the more fey orchestrations of old-time. Where some artists and bands such as the Foghorn Stringband, Caleb Klauder, The Onlies, or the Carolina Chocolate Drops bring a fun and energetic attitude to this very old music, this will be an album hard to sell casual listeners on. The renderings are severe, and are more for the hardcore of the old-time field.

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man wasn’t made for the day trippers though. “Old-time was and is an experience that’s spiritual for me beyond explanation,” J.P. Harris says. Hopefully in the future more honky tonk material will emanate from behind his big bushy beard, and boots will be spirited across dance floors once more. But for the moment, he’s set aside the time and love to encapsulate the era in his life where he studied the earliest expressions of country music, so that with intimate knowledge and authority, J.P. could offer his own contributions to the country music canon that could be referential and reverent to its most earliest incarnations.

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