He may not look like it, but JP Harris is an absolute traditionalist. When he took the stage at a packed hole-in-the-wall in Brooklyn called Skinny Dennis this past Saturday night, he began by issuing the crowd a tongue-in-cheek warning: “I don’t know if any of ya’ll know who I am, so I hope you’re prepared for what you’re gonna hear…and that’s country music.” Somebody yelled out “Country and western!” and he demurred, “Maybe we’ll get to some of that too.”
But the crowd did know who he was. And they sure as heck knew what he meant by “country music”: the classic stuff, the real stuff, and certainly not the counterfeit crap purveyed and promoted on pop country radio. And that whole idea of authenticity, I’ve learned, is a huge part of Harris’s appeal. His website bio begins, “In today’s musical culture, the word “authenticity” has pretty much lost all meaning. What used to represent something bona fide and true is now just watered-down marketing speak, stamped onto press releases without a second thought.” And a recent review in roots music journal No Depression similarly featured the following weighty description: “Pulling off the whole working class country music outlaw thing can feel inauthentic, but not if you’re JP Harris. The freight train-hopping troubadour has been delivering tried-and-true tales of hard livin’ and honky-tonkin’ for nearly a decade, his low rumble twang driving nails through your heart with one hand and toasting with a frosty one in the other. His sound harkens back to an old-school country, showing a deep appreciation for the greats without any added gimmick or phoniness.” That’s real good.
Now, I’m naturally a little suspicious about an artist’s, well, authenticity, for whom so much of their image revolves around that idea of them being authentic. But I saw the show, heard him sing his songs, and also got the chance to chat briefly with him outside the club in between sets as he was having a smoke. And I’m completely sold: JP Harris is the real deal. A country artist built on real life and not real hype.
That cigarette break actually connected to a story he’d related in between songs just earlier, one of many guileless and self-effacing tales he told. Harris recounted how early in his career he’d sold a couple of his songs to be included in a big Hollywood movie and said he thought then it would surely make him, in his words, “famous and f*ckable,” before adding dryly, “You can see that didn’t happen.” Instead, he continued, the movie flopped, and his big plans for celebrity resulted in him receiving about $80 annually in royalties. “So I figure,” he said with a toothy grin, “they pay for me to get a carton of cigarettes every year.”
As for the performance of Harris and his 5-piece band, it was superb without being showy; if you want to know what essential country music is supposed to sound like, this was it. In most tunes, JP sang his heartfelt verses while vigorously strumming rhythm guitar, then left plenty of room for two sets of trading solos – always two – between his increasingly dynamic guitarist and his highly creative pedal steel guitarist, sneaking knowing looks at them when one would accent a particularly impressive note or phrase, and even once a smirk when the pedal steel unexpectedly came in a verse early. Both were pros, as were the sturdy drum and bass rhythm section. Harris introduced each number beforehand, specifying with appropriate pride if the song to follow was a new or an old one of his, yet perhaps seeming to take special delight in a couple that were covers of old-school country crooners of yore.
Harris isn’t exactly an old-timer himself, but he has been at this a while. He’s 35, born in Alabama but long-settled in Nashville, and just over a week ago released his phenomenal new album, his third full-length over the last six years, called “Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing,” which contains the neo-classic opener ‘JP’s Florida Blues #1.’ As one of just three up-tempo tunes within the 10-track disc, it can be considered somewhat of an album outlier, but frankly the song’s just too much fun not to highlight here. It’s a hard-driving (literally) country/rock number that makes a raucous good time out of detailing some of Harris’s darker days on the road with his band at the time, the Tough Choices. “This track is special to me in many ways,” he says. “Not only was it fun as hell to record, but for me it’s a humorous way to process a very real and very dark stretch of time from my past. Once I was far enough away from it, the story became a little easier to recount in a near-comical fashion.” Near-comical is typical Harris humility; I’d say boisterous and riotous would be more accurate, as the accompanying madcap video only accentuates (the production manages to strike just the right deranged tone with its campy characters rapidly interspersed throughout, while surely not exactly breaking the bank by the use of a single camera shot of one bouncing car).
JP Harris is growing mightily as an artist, but never growing apart from his unyielding country roots. “This record is different in ways I’m proud of,” Harris posted to fans on Facebook a few days before its release, “But it’s all country, goddamnit, it’s all I know to do, and I hope you like it.” Separately, he also thusly summed up his hopes for the album, and surely his music career in general: “I’m just hoping that me coming to the table without gimmicks or cool-looking clothes or boot-cut jeans, just the dirt bag guy I am with a tank top and a pair of boots on, is enough to just get people into the music.” I, for one, am definitely at the table and in for gimmick-less dirtbags.
*In another Facebook post on the day of his album’s release, Harris offered a fine description of both his emotions and his attitude: “Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing” is officially released today. In the hopes of not getting overly-emotional in front of everybody (which I very much am on the inside), I instead offer you an image that relates my feelings towards worry, hard times, notions of “success,” bad reviews and musical criticisms, or any other manner of mind-bending f*ckery that comes along with releasing these very personal stories into the world.” Keep on truckin’, JP.