Of the many traditions of country music that have been trounced upon and forgotten in recent history, the culture of male country artists being complimented by women on stage is one of the most regrettable. Whether it was Dolly playing with Porter, Emmylou singing with Gram, or scores of other examples throughout country music’s storied past, the expressiveness and dimension a harmony singer brought to the music made the sounds and stories of country that much more compelling to both sexes. These important frontline appearances also helped feed a country music farm system from which future headliner talent could be cultivated.
There are many reasons why women have virtually disappeared from the radio charts and headliners slots of mainstream country music festivals recently, but one is the lack of women beside the men on stage or in song. Granted, for the past 42 weeks, the #1 song on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart has been due to Florida Georgia Line collaborating with pop star Bebe Rexha on the track “Meant To Be.” But far from addressing country music’s inability to mine talent, importing a pop star to promote the other side of the radio dial only exacerbates the issue.
There are exceptions to the rules governing mainstream country however. Eric Church deserves credit for sharing his spotlight with Valerie June, Rhiannon Giddens, and most recently (and to great results) Ashley McBryde recently. Even Jason Aldean did a service by adding Miranda Lambert on his recent, and surprisingly-decent single “Drowns The Whiskey.” But these are the outliers.
East Nashville honky tonker JP Harris is a victim himself of the skewed priorities of the current country music environment, struggling to secure a full-time touring career, booking construction jobs between shows and studio sessions to keep food on the table and creative control of his music. He may not be in some superior position to dole out attention to the struggling country artists in his local community. But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t try, and can’t at least help reverse the tide, or set a good example.
JP Harris is getting ready to release a new record on October 5th called Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing. On the album is a song called “Lady in the Spotlight” about the struggles many of country’s women face. JP Harris played an officially-sanctioned set at the 2018 AmericanFest in Nashville Saturday, September 15th at 3rd and Lindsley to help promote the album. As he’s often done in his career, he didn’t just bring one, but a cadre of country music women to compliment him on stage, including singer and songwriter Michaela Anne, who sat in with JP for the whole set behind an acoustic guitar and keys. Also joining him on stage was Kristina Murray, who just released a new record called Southern Ambrosia. He also had The Watson Twins join him on stage.
The next day JP Harris was the linchpin of an east Nashville music gathering called Sunday Morning Coming Down he co-sponsored with publicity agency Hearth Music and his label Free Dirt Records. His lineup included Kristina Murray and The Watson Twins again, songwriter Erin Rae who enjoyed The Secret Sisters sitting in with her, as well as SiriusXM Apron Strings DJ and should-be Grand Ole Opry member Elizabeth Cook. JP also shared his own set with Kristina Murray, Michaela Anne, and folk punk musician Sunny War.
A lot of folks love to talk a big game about supporting women. But this isn’t just about the optics and symbolism behind a popular subject. With country music’s roots in family bands and married couples singing together, and the duet being a essential part of the fabric of country music for generations, the collaboration of voices across the sexes is how country music created a universal appeal. By reviving this relationship of singers of the opposite sex, perhaps a more equitable equilibrium can also be achieved in the genre.
JP Harris prefers to sing with women because like it’s done for country artists across generations, it makes him sound better. It just happens to be that at the same time, JP Harris is also helping to create connections and name recognition for worthy artists from his community that are being overlooked by the mainstream.
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JP Harris’s ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing’ is out October 5th. Kristina Murray’s ‘Southern Ambrosia’ is out now. Michaela Anne and The Watson Twins have new albums on the way soon.