Isn’t it funny how many of the performers who profess that country music is too limiting of a creative art form are the ones out there producing really bad rap or formulaic dance pop strictly for commercial purposes, or are country genre burnouts making bland Americana or eepish indie rock. Saying you can’t be creative in country is more of an indictment of the artist than it is the artistic capabilities of country music.
Some take the idea that country can’t be relevant to the modern ear as a challenge, and rise to it. Others understand from a more fundamental level how omnivorous and expansive country music really is, and explore the ample elbow room country affords to elaborate on the sound. Still others figure out how to respectfully expand country’s borders and sonic palette, while still holding onto those sounds, modes, and themes that speak to country music fans so deeply, and always have since Ralph Peer put The Carter Family on lacquer. Some know how to do all of these things and simultaneously, and present a form of country that feels both familiar, yet alive and fresh with new ideas.
If you’re married fast to the notion that country music can’t evolve while remaining tethered to it’s roots, then you better not go near Jason Hawk Harris’s Bloodshot Records debut Love & the Dark and risk having your little theory thrown back in your face. Fueled by the challenge, and armed with his classical training as a musician, Harris presents a version of country music that jumps from your speakers with energy and enthusiasm, is complex and colorful in its compositional scope, yet still gives you that succulent twang of the steel guitar, and those songs that feel like they’re ripped right out of your diary of personal dilemmas like all good country music does. In quick order, Jason Hawk Harris euthanizes the idea that country music can’t be current or creative, while also remaining not just accessible, but surprisingly infectious.
Harris is not afraid to have a healthy dose of piano bursting out in important points, or whatever else he feels a song needs to give it the right texture and mood. He’s not the Frank Zappa of country or anything, though he was titilated by the notion of fitting the xylophone into country—something Zappa would do. And underpinning all of this is a punk attitude indicative of many Bloodshot Records artists over the last 30 years. Bloodshot Records was built for a guy like Jason Hawk Harris, and Jason Hawk Harris was built for Bloodshot.
Beyond what country sounds like and how well someone can stretch those boundaries while staying true to the music, it’s still the stories that must find harbor in the hearts and minds of country listeners for them to work. This is arguably where Jason Hawk Harris excels. Don’t let the straight cut look of his promo photos fool you. Demons lie just beneath the surface in the form of rabid alcohol addiction and the inevitable calamities this malady gives rise to, spoken about in cutting honesty in two of the album’s standout songs “Cussing At The Light” and “Giving In.”
The story of Jason Hawk Harris is nothing short of insane, and it’s all ample inspiration for Love & the Dark. The Houston native found his passion for country music through his grandfather, and played for a while in the California-based band The Show Ponies. But things went south over the last few years for him and his family. Jason’s mother died from complications of alcoholism. His father went bankrupt after being sued by the King of Morocco of all things. And his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and gave birth to a premature son with cerebral palsy. Every artist says their albums are deeply personal. With Jason Hawk Harris, you believe it from the way he courageously unburdens his heart in these songs.
“I’m Afraid” has been circled by some as the best song on the album, and it’s where Jason Hawk Harris goes full blown cowpunk. Some may find a couple of lines a little too sacrilegious for their sensibilities, while others may just find it too abrasive. But the song fits well within the wide range of emotions and styles Harris sows into Love & the Dark, while still keeping it all under that big country music tent. The album ends with the touching “Grandfather.” The ending may feel a little too self-indulgent or esoteric for some, but this is Jason Hawk Harris asserting his presence on country music, letting you know he’s here to push boundaries, and not for commercial applicability, but for creative exploration.
Jason Hawk Harris gives you a lot to digest and ponder in Love & the Dark, stimulating your country music synapses through the compositional expertise, leaving your brain seared by the severe honesty embedded in some songs, and overall presenting a towering work of country music that puts any and all notions of the genre being a tired art form to bed.
It’s true, country music must evolve to stay relevant. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of honesty, creativity, or the roots of the music. If you need a road map, an example, corroborating evidence to this important maxim, just pull up Jason Hawk Harris’s Love & the Dark, and be amazed.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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