If you’re looking for a brand of country music that is country and country only, not country rock, country punk, “evolved” country, alt-country or Americana, then J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices just might be right in your wheelhouse. J.P. lets it be known he’d rather you leave your hyphenated country labels and long-winded qualifiers clear of what he does. And when you listen to his music, that’s exactly what you get: country music as the original concept of what the term “country” implies with very little wiggle room.
J.P. Harris has had a busy couple of weeks. While attending the Americana Music Conference in Nashville, he released his second album through Cow Island Music called Home Is Where The Hurt Is, and just like his highly-lauded last album I’ll Keep Calling, it brings the country heartbreak drenched in twang, while featuring contributions from Nikki Lane and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Chance McCoy.
And if that didn’t lump enough on J.P.’s plate, he decided to help launch a music event called the Keep It Country Festival happening Oct. 3rd thru 5th at Bandit Town in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. Red Simpson, Whitey Morgan & The 78’s, Nikki Lane, Joe Fletcher, Sam Outlaw, Miss Lonely Hearts, and Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin are all playing the event.
As J.P. was driving across the desert Southwest, he spoke to Saving Country Music by phone about his various pursuits, and about the Keep It Country concept.
On your new album Home Is Where The Hurt Is, are you trying to interpret traditional country into the modern day context, or are you singing about your real life, and just doing so in a traditional country style? Or is it a combination of both?
I’d probably say it’s a little bit of both. All of the songs I’ve written have some real world experience for me. I would like to make up awesome stories that go to song just perfectly and beautifully out of thin air, but unfortunately I only gain inspiration through experiences whether they’re good or bad, and in this case they’re usually bad or heartbreaking. So there’s always at least a portion of a song that’s an interpretation of my own life. But at the same time, when I write songs there’s classic themes or classic vocal sounds or rhyming schemes that just come out naturally because I listen to so much country music. And so I’m sure by default I’m always interpreting the modern world through traditional country music, but at the same time, I’m just re-interpreting stories from my own life, especially on this record. A handful of those songs are pretty true to the letter to actual situations that have happened in my life over the last couple of years since the last record came out. In some ways the songs on this album feel more personal to me than ones from the last record. I shaped them a lot more I think to fit within a sound that I envisioned for each song, and on this record I feel like they just took their own shape and they just worked themselves out. I didn’t do as much hammering at the anvil on them.
You go out of your way to say that your music is country and country only. No prefixes, no suffixes, no brand new compound words. Why is this important to you, and do you believe the term “country” is worth fighting for or preserving?
For the last 50 years in American history, country music is the one thing that is universally identifiable as an American soundtrack, as an American kind of music. More than any other type of exclusively American music—old rock and roll, old black blues, old-time bluegrass or fiddle music—I think that country music more broadly represents a bigger segment of people in America. Keeping that tradition alive and seeing that country music has played an amazing role in unifying different segments politically and culturally of American people, it’s worth fighting to keep that identifiable.
Do you think all of these disparate terms that have popped up lately like Americana or alt-country or even something like Ameripolitan are potentially hurting the cause of of independent country music because there’s only so much of a pie slice to begin with, and then you cut the pie slices even smaller by these different terms and making people choose what to call it?
Yeah, the honest truth is that the longer I play country music and tour playing that music, and work with other country musicians, the less I get concerned about people wanting to delineate their own music to some sort of ‘hyphenated country music’ as I call it. Because I feel like the bottom line is that what people are trying to do by trying to broaden and come up with all these different terms that involve the word ‘country’ or ‘American’ is these folks really want to identify with what the country music mindset was in the 60’s or 70’s. And I think there’s probably room for people to do that, it’s just in my own music I don’t. There’s been a handful of shows we’ve played where people review us or write about it and say, “Classic Texas Country & Western music,” and I’m like, “Hold on, you’re putting too many delineations on this thing. It’s just straight up country music. Plain and simple.
I think there’s room for the expansion of country music, and on a personal level I do feel like fighting for the term of country music is worth doing, and the way I’ve taken about doing it these days is make my opinion plain and simple by saying that I don’t think what they play on the radio and call country music is in any way benefiting or furthering the tradition of country music. It is so far off the mark. And I think people say and sometimes validly in the commercial country world, “Country music can’t survive if we don’t continue to evolve.” As an individual artist, sure I believe that each artist has to evolve in their songwriting and their singing and their playing and everything else. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that glossing over your music to make it more commercially viable in any way equates to an evolution of music.
I feel people continuing to have a dialog about it, and people saying that what’s on the radio is not country music, it’s just as applicable to all of these country punk bands, a lot of which are friends of mine, and people I know and respect as coming from a similar musical background or upbringing. But you can say the same thing about bands that are touring and saying, “We’re country music,” and it’s like “Well you’re a bunch of punk kids beating the shit out of your instruments, you’re not working that hard at your arranging or singing.” That’s not country music either. It’s a whole other type of music. So I feel like spending too much time being self-righteous about it as part of my platform as a musician is not something I want to spend much energy on. My opinions haven’t changed at all and I respect people who have made a platform out of it, that they’re willing to stand really hardline behind what they believe in. But there isn’t a way that movement will destroy pop country. It will never go away. Which is a sad fact because it’s really a bummer that it even exists.
I think that re-arranging ways to appreciate and acknowledge country musicians like what Dale Watson has spearheaded with Ameripolitan, I think that’s great because that’s a way within out community to create our own hierarchy as country music is judged in our opinions. And since none of us are going to get into the CMA’s, why don’t we just make our own stuff?
Along those same lines, you have a new festival coming up called the “Keep It Country Festival.” How did that come about, and what inspired you to bite off such a big responsibility as helping to throw a festival?
It started for a couple of reasons. My friend Jen who runs Bandit Brand clothing bought this really awesome reproduction Wild West town that was built back in the 70’s and sat totally abandoned for a bunch of years, and used to be a really vital part of that rural community in the Sierra foothills in California. She’s someone who is really involved in sort of promoting Outlaw culture, and she’s making really cool clothing that’s American made. She and I met a while ago and just really hit it off. So we kind of joked about throwing a party out there sometime and I said, “Hey, if I could get Red Simpson to come out and play, do you think we should try and throw a festival out there?” And she said, “Well shit yeah, let’s do it.”
Really the basis of the whole thing started because I wanted to put together some sort of a showcase of what I considered to be the new generation of people continuing on the tradition of country music. And I won’t say that every band there is strictly 100% traditional country by any means. But I felt like we needed something out West that could be a clearinghouse weekend for that, and do it somewhere cool that kind of represents the attitude behind the music. So it all just kind of came together.
I got a hold of Red [Simpson] and we probably spent a good hour and a half on the phone, and he agreed to do it. Since then we’ve been on the phone a dozen times, and most of the time it’s just us shooting the shit about old country music. But it’s been cool getting to know him and I’m excited. I think to a lot of people … we just had the AMA [Americana] musical festival thing in Nashville, which I think is a good thing that’s really starting to open its doors to a lot more musicians and become a lot more inclusive, but at the same time being there and kind of looking around, I realized that 90% of the people have no idea who Red Simpson is. They would know the Buck Owens song “Close Up The Honky Tonks” or they would know the Merle Haggard song “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go.” But these are songs that Red wrote. They know “Highway Patrol,” but they think it’s a Junior Brown song when it’s actually an old Red Simpson tune. And I just realized this guy is sort of a unsung hero outside of real diehard country fans. And I wanted it to be more than just, “Hey, we’re a bunch of snotty-nosed 30-something kids playing country music, and we’re badass.” I wanted to have somebody here that is validating what we’re doing and shows where what we’re doing is coming from. This is a tangible piece of country music history.
So it’s really been by the seat of our pants. Everyone’s playing for super super cheap, and we’re all just putting this together as we figure it out. We’ve got help from Dee Fretwell at the West Coast Country Music Festival. And Jen [from Bandit Brand] is getting her feet pretty wet this summer with events out there. Another reason for this is I felt like I knew a lot of different people from different country music cliques, and I just wanted to find a good way to connect the dots there. I just felt like I needed to cross pollinate all these different people. Someone who knows my music through Nikki Lane or knows Nikki Lane’s music through mine should know who our buddy Sam Outlaw is, or should know who Whitey Morgan is. I feel like there’s not enough cohesion because the independent country music scene in America is not inter-connected enough yet that it’s easy for people to stumble upon other bands all the time. If nothing else we’re going to have one hell of a time. It’s gonna be a raging party to not forget.
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