Now/It's: An Interview with JP Harris (Part Two)

This is part two of Now/It’s extended interview with JP Harris, at his home in East Nashville, TN. You can read Part One here. Harris’ latest full-length record, ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing’ is available for purchase, streaming, etc. now.

JP - Luckily, [traditional country]’s come en vogue since I started doing it…. When I started….I mean, shit. I started touring almost a decade ago. There were like four other young, full-time, rocking country bands touring. Sturgill’s old band, Whitey Morgan, and then everything else was “country influenced” stuff. But there were very few, young ass-kicking country bands out. It has come around - I’m not passing myself on the back - but it’s convenient that I became established and was already kind of a veteran by the time the whole “country is cool” thing came back. Now it seems to have a pretty solid foothold. It’s a weird world.

N/I - Very much so [laughs]. With you being in the midst of a promotional cycle, have you had people ascribing that whole “forbearing” status?

JP - A little bit.

N/I - Because you do have some people - just through circumstantial or associative standing - who are thrown into this world they don’t have a whole lot of familiarity with, and then they see that you have been touring, playing the same kind of music, looking same way, and doing all of this for a decade now. Does that create more hoops to jump through?

JP - That’s a good question. It’s an interesting balance.

N/I - Because someone may have never heard the other two albums or the duets record, and they might just want to talk about that - how do you segue all of those records into an explanation of the new songs as a culmination of all that?

JP - Again, it’s a delicate balance. Everything in this business is a delicate balance. I wouldn’t say that I’m calculated with the way that I do it [laughs], I just kind of go with my gut. I know that I’ve been around for a while, and that I’ve led an interesting and wild life. It’s been fun. I’ve made a lot of really bad and really awesome and weird unconventional life choices. I left home really young and steered me to where I am today. But at the same time, I’ve had to work really hard over the years at not letting people inflate that, either on my side or third parties writing about me or whatever. It’s “Please don’t blow this up into some mythical sounding horseshit.”

N/I - Like the whole living with no electricity and no running water thing?

JP - Right. Or “He rode freight trains.” I did do all of this and it can be talked about in an interesting way without trying to sound like you’re desperately attempting to legitimize who I am. There are some great songwriters out there who never did any of that type of stuff. Also, people have gone on and on and on about how Sturgill worked on the railroad, which he did, but he didn’t drive trains across the country. He was a foreman or a supervisor in the trainyard.

N/I - Exactly. He wasn’t necessarily out in the desert laying down the track single-handedly.

JP - And he wasn’t a brakeman who was spending five days on a freight train. Yes, it is rad that he worked in the train industry, and I’m sure that if you asked Sturgill himself, he’d probably laugh about how much people blew that up when his first record came out. It was all “He’s a railroad man! Blah, blah, blah.” He’s a lot of things.

N/I - Well even that, it wasn’t until the second record came out that things really get conflated to the point of the railroad worker point, but also that the first time they had heard of him means it must be his first record. That earlier point.

JP - People didn’t even know he had a record before that and a band for almost six, seven, eight years before that. So it’s that same thing where I try let people know that I’ve been around, but at the same time, I’ve learned over the years - and I used to be real self-conscious about it, and I run my mouth on stage a lot…. I was nervous that I talked too much - but after reading reviews and talking to fans, people want to feel like they know me, and I want to give them the honest truth. I don’t want to give them some made up persona.

N/I - That kind of circles back to that beginning dilemma of how much do you share?

JP - Exactly. So it’s a tricky balance. I kind of laughingly get miffed about being called a “new” artist by certain publications, but I don’t give a shit. People know I’ve been around. People can say that about anyone. When Jason Isbell’s Southeastern came out, people were like “Where’d this Johnny come lately turn up?” and it’s like “Are you fucking kidding me? You didn’t know he was [The Drive By Truckers’] guitar player, or that he had his own band? He’s been touring professionally for twenty god damned years!” But until you get a broader audience, people just don’t know that you existed before that. It always feels really contrived when people try to paint a convincing backstory to sell a recent release.

N/I - And it seems you’ve avoided that to this point.

JP - I’d say so. I have been at country music a long time. I grew up hearing it, but it wasn’t like my family…. I wasn’t raised in a fucking honky tonk. My friend Tommy Ash - she’s great. Tommy grew up in a honky tonk. That girl is the real deal. Her parents ran a fucking western store her whole life, she started singing in Legions and VFW Halls when she was thirteen. That girl did grow up in country music. I grew up around it. My parents listened to southern rock and folk music and whatever the fuck, and I didn’t listen to any modern music. I only listened to weird old field recordings of Appalachian tunes, and early pre-country Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and the blues. That kind of shit. I had a hard cut-off at 1930-something where i was like “I don’t listen to that new shit.” So before I started writing songs, I wasn’t just balls deep in a bunch of 60s country albums, I was listening to albums predating that. And I think that’s given me a unique perspective on country music. It’s the same perspective of the original players of the “classic sound,” that’s what they grew up on. And I just unwittingly took that same exact chronological course into what I play now. And only the dorkiest of the ethnomusicology nerds are going to be able to pick it out on the new record.

N/I - Is there anything in particular that you’re thinking of? In terms of those small details?

JP - Well there are just dozens of little winks and references on this new record to all kinds of old, old songs. Again, you would have to be the ultimate geek, like I am, about old, old, old, early twentieth century music to get even half of the references. The opening track, “JP’s Florida Blues #1,” is a nod to all of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels, which were just different numbers. And there are the missing yodels that no one ever found, or were lost, or were never released. That’s exactly what that is. The very last song on the record is called “Jimmie’s Dead and Gone,” which is a nod to a Waylon tune where he’s making a nod to Jimmie Rodgers. So it’s opening and closing.

N/I - So there are threads that last all throughout and then sidebars and tangents as well.

JP - It’s so dorky and layered and obscure. Barely anyone is ever going to get it. Other old time music geeks like me will understand it.

N/I - I would imagine you don’t really feel a need to explain all that, then.

JP - Not really. If people ask - because every once a while someone will ask what a song is about - and I’m like “Alright. How many facets of this crusty diamond can I explain to you?”

N/I - Or “How much time do you have?”

JP - Anyways, I kind of got on a tangent there….

N/I - No worries, you’re good. I invite tangents.

JP - Cool. But in terms of all that, I don’t feel the need. I get a bad taste in my mouth reading a lot of press releases for artists these days. It’s not like I judge the artist on that, especially if I don’t know them, because publicists can write some utter dogshit, or labels can go “This is how we’re going to spin this. Trust us.” But if I read one more “Blahdey, blah brings his whiskey soaked writing anthem….” I’m going to light whatever publication I’m reading on fire and throw it out of the fucking window. I don’t want any more references to whiskey or cowboy boots or whatever the fuck all of these cliches that are stacking up on top of each other.

N/I - The one that kills me, when it comes to any female artist - it doesn’t matter what genre they’d classify themselves in - the word “ethereal” is thrown around a ton. I’ve probably seen it ten thousand times over, and it’s obviously just a euphemism for “Oh, she’s a woman singer.”

JP - It’s like “Ethereal. What do you mean by that?”

N/I - It’s really just J.R.R Tolkien speak.

JP - Seriously! Are you trying to describe a girl that sounds like Dido? Like what the fuck? And could you give me some sort of defining feature? The point is that there are tons of great musicians in the world - and by no means has the digital age hurt me. I essentially started without it, but it’s definitely taken much more of a foothold now than ten years ago when I got going. Instagram didn’t even fucking exist. But it’s opened a platform for people - and this might sound like a dickhead thing to say - who do not have the constitution to not build a music career.

N/I - That’s fair.

JP - And it’s flooding and perpetuating this content driven problem of new this and new that and fucking new everything. Anyone can record now with Garageband or Ableton, or whatever the fuck in their living room. Good quality USB microphones are cheaper and cheaper. You can build a really nice website on a million different platforms now. You can take a picture that you would have had to spend $500 on a session for with a new iPhone, and a fucking timer and a tripod in your kitchen. So everyone is getting all of these tools to promote themselves, but it’s a situation where you used to have to get out there and drive around in circles, and call your buddies in different towns to ask for the address for a DJ, because you want to come play there, and you need to mail them a manila envelope with a fucking press pack and a CD in it. That’s how I started out. We’d drive out to towns where we didn’t know anyone and play to five fucking people.

N/I - You were out cutting your teeth and building up a constitution for a continually exhausting process.

JP - And one of the downsides of the digital age - and I’m not totally knocking it - because Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Sirius XM have all been very good to me.

N/I - They have their merits.

JP - They have their merits, for sure. However, it has opened up this world for people to present themselves so much more professionally than they actually are. It can really fuck things up. And you can buy engines now that will spin your songs, which then creates random accounts that will “listen.” It’s like the Instagram bots you can buy. Download some piece of shit app for $50 and it will spin your numbers for Spotify. The people who do that look great on paper, but when it comes to playing, no one comes to see them. It’s all this big smoke and mirrors show, and it is continuing to happen.

N/I - It’s a whole different version of narrative building, except this one is immediately quantifiable, if people fall for the ruse.

JP - And for the people creating these borderline holy, false backstories, sometimes that does raise my blood pressure for me to say “I’m telling my fucking real story, and I dare anyone of you motherfuckers to check it out. You want to go talk to anybody anywhere that all of this is true and one hundred percent factual?” And then I remember that I don’t really give a shit, and it’s not worth me wasting my time or my energy to legitimize myself to someone else. I will defend myself if anyone tries to give me shit.

N/I - Has anyone tried to do that?

JP - There have been a few times where I’ve gotten reviews where someone will say “This guy seems perfectly stamped out of the East Nashville machine.” and I’m like “Fuck you. You’ve never even been here. Also fuck you Google Image search me from twenty years ago.”

N/I - Plus, I don’t even know if there is necessarily an East Nashville machine.

JP - People have been trying to say shit like that now for a couple years where it’s just like “Give me a fucking break.” So there’s been the occasion where I’ve had to defend my history or my credibility just a little bit, but it’s almost never been painted in a bad light, it’s just where it’s been painted that it rubs me wrong, and I have to be like “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Knock that shit off. I’m not this little crew of whatever people you’re referring to here.” I do my own shit, it just so happens that some of us are from the same town and are friends. So I haven’t really had to do it too much.

N/I - And at the same time, this particular album kind of stands to substantiate that history. Again, like you were saying, for the folks who aren’t necessarily ethnomusicologists, if people ask, you’ll answer. You’re not going to stand on a soapbox of your own making, basically in this funhouse that is the digital age, screaming out in hopes that everyone winds up at the foot of your altar.

JP - Exactly. It’s more like…. In the film industry, they call them “Easter Eggs.” Where you say “I’m going to hide this.”.... Something I’ve seen a lot, now that we have established, top performers in this world, when we didn’t have that five to ten years ago. This is a new iteration of an industry with new rules, new players. We didn’t have Stapleton, Isbell, Sturgill, Margo…. Any of these people.

N/I - Them and whoever else might be able to slip into that topline category.

JP - Right. Them and whoever else. I just hope that people don’t just start using those people as touchstones and say things like “This person seems to glean their influence from….” Because I’ve had some other buddies who put records out in a well-intentioned, but an uneducated music writer goes “Oh! It seems like they’re following the path of fill-in-the-bank, top new artist of our world.” But that’s not fair.

N/I - It absolutely isn’t. It’s a disservice, even.

JP - We’re all drawing from influences different from what we all make now. You shouldn’t try and reference something current. A lot of times, it’s well-intentioned, because they’re just trying to five their reader an easier, more accessible reference point.

N/I - Well in my world, or at least on this particular site, there’s a running joke that I try and hammer home with regard to the business of comparing JP Harris, or whomever, it’s all preceded by some form of “Maybe you could say they sound like this person, but realistically that doesn’t matter.” What matters is what the individual’s music is and where it stands within its own right.

JP - Exactly. That’s the thing. Every now and again, an artist will come along who is reproducing a sound that they learned from an outside influence, verbatim. By the time an artist is mature enough and established enough to begin getting real write-ups, they’ve come into their own sound, even if it’s influenced by this or that or whatever. Did you ever hear the band The Derailers? Remember them?

N/I - Oh yeah. Out of Texas?

JP - They might do reunion shows in Texas every now and then, but they’re part of what I queitly call the “first failed wave.” Which was that 90s - Squirrel Nut Zippers, BR549 - that whole vintage revival thing that quickly became co-opted and mushed up into some weird MTV garbage, and then turned back into punk music that was then watered down and put on Warped Tour. That was the quickest fad.

N/I - It wasn’t even a decade, if even half that.

JP - Barely! Squirrel Nut Zippers put two records out before they were dropped from the radio. BR549 - they had two videos on VH1, and then it was over. It was a quick event. I think that’s similar to what’s happening now, but it has staying power partially because most of it is not vintage-y throwback music. It’s become more of a modern, current kind of music, whereas back then, it was more of a nostalgic recreation. At least, stylistically. The Derailers were a big part of that scene, or at least in their own right, but some of their early records, you listen and can’t help but go “This dude has his own voice, but this first record, he just sounds like all he has listened to for his entire life is Buck Owens.” You can tell it’s not Buck Owens, but every inflection is similar. But you listen to later records, and he starts to not sound quite like Buck Owens. The guitars get a little dirtier.

N/I - People adjust, adapt over time.

JP - Most people find their own way. Take my buddy JD McPherson. He started out as a rockabilly dude, and his old band - which we actually label mates way back - The Starkweather Boys were more throwback-y rockabilly trio. But now JD has an indescrible, unique style of old school music. It’s just rock n roll, some of it’s more soul, some of it’s more rock, and you can’t compare him to anyone. And everyone gets to that point, because you have to, otherwise people lose interest.

N/I - If your purpose is to promote someone’s release, or an artist, and you’re attempting to attract people from worlds outside of their own - sometimes the reference point is in service of what the various entities have all gathered for. Which is about as close to an earnest attempt at that comparative spirit, but for the most part, it can be detrimental.

JP - Totally. Again, a lot of those people from back then in the 90s, who were younger than me back then, they still had successful careers, but it’s been narrowed to a very specific lane. And when they go to Europe, they play car show culture. We’re going and playing at Paradiso in Amsterdam to a whole array of people - old folks in cowboy hats, really normal looking people, young punk kids. One of the few artists to do that thing where it’s really vintage and throwback, but still manage to garner a really wide audience, is Pokey LaFarge. He and all those guys are good buddies of mine from way back - we’ve known each other for years. Pokey’s thing is as historically accurate and perfectly shaped as you could imagine, but somehow he has just made enough aspects of it his own and original that when you go to one of his shows, it’s not just a whole bunch of swing-dance kids in 50s clothes. Which early on, it was more of that.

N/I - That’s totally fair. There’s a buddy of mine whose two favorite acts are Pokey and The Black Keys, which lends some credence to what you’re saying.

JP - He did a cool thing - that record before last - that song called “Riot” that was very much more of a 60s big band thing. He’s continued to elbow his bubble too. That’s the same thing that I’ve tried to do. My first record is so by the book. Back then, I would get these original ideas for songs, but eventually, when I would flesh them out, I would be using a format in my mind that they needed to fit into, each one individually. It wasn’t like I applied a filter to my entire career, it was “This song needs to sound like this. Here’s a track we can reference.” Every record, I’ve gone a little further in that influence, and being a little braver. Because back then, I was just afraid that if I branched out too far - I only thought my base of fans were going to be traditional country fans. But what I hear at every single show I play, someone comes to the merch table, drops $50 for the stuff and says “Look man, I don’t ever listen to country music, I never have, but I love what you fucking do.” Cool. That’s the best compliment I can get. You don’t own a single country album, you didn’t grow up on this shit, and you liked my show. I’ve slowly evolved in that way. I was even thinking about putting fuzz guitar on my last record, and then when we started messing around in the studio, I went “This is too outside of my bubble for me.” But fuck, if I had done that, I bet that would have been the stand out track on that record.

N/I - Because it wouldn’t have been such a departure?

JP - Because everything else is clean country and then there’s this [makes buzz noise] kind of guitar. Something original. So with this record, I do feel like I’ve taken a pretty firm step out of my previously delineated box. The first song has no lead guitar at all, except for a lead acoustic. The fucking beat is the “Hollywood Nights” beat by Bob Seger.

N/I - Just driving the whole time.

JP - It’s out there. I put it as the opening track intentionally for that reason. I want everyone to be like “Wow! Whoa! What the fuck is going on here?” and then followed it right up with by far the most unconventional song I’ve ever written or recorded, “Lady in the Spotlight.” That’s four acoustic guitars and a synthesizer. There’s no drums, there’s no pedal steel, there’s no bass.

N/I - Was that all you? I know when it came to the guys that played on the record, you put them in their own world of “Take your notes and we’ll compare when we meet up.”

JP - That one was just a beautiful coalescing of everyone’s ideas. Even the drummer, when we got in there, and got to that track - I don’t remember which order we did the album in - we’d do three or four songs a day. But I remember the drummer going “Yeah, no drums on this one. How about I do shaker in the background.” and we were like “Fuck yeah!” The guitar player on the record came up with that cool weird cross picked twelve string pattern. And then I was the one that was like “Can we put some really shitty 60s synth strings on this?” and everyone was like “Fuck yeah! Let’s do that!” And then we brought the Watson [Twins] in to sing “ooh ahs” in the background, and then it was doing a second twelve string guitar part. All I had written was the bad acoustic guitar track, which is the only guitar I played on the record. One acoustic rhythm track on one song [laughs]. And then Leroy, who was playing steel was like “Well what the fuck am I going to do?” and we asked “What you got in your arsenal in your corner of the studio?” and he had this high strung Martin with silk steels and played some Willie shit over it. So we just gave it a whirl. It’s missing all of what people think of as key elements of country.

N/I - Or at least what they’ve come to expect.

JP - I don’t know how anyone would know how to call that anything other than a country song. It’s got double vocals. That was done on some recordings way back when, but fairly unconventional approach. So it’s nice to feel like I’m pushing it out a little. I did an interview with this great mag out of The Netherlands, and we were going track by track, and he got to he fourth song, “Long Ways Back,” and he said it sounded like a soul song and was different from anything that I had done. But I was like “Have you ever heard the song “Night Life” by Willie Nelson?”

N/I - I was going to say it reminded me of the Ray Price version.

JP - Exactly. And that was what I compared it too, and he said he hadn’t thought about it like that. But it’s like, look at the careers of Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson…. Those guys have gone all over the place. But because the singer was a country singer, it was a country song. Conway Twitty. His version of “Slow Hand,” that’s a disco song.

N/I - He covered “The Rose” by Bette Midler.

JP - Exactly. “Slow Hand” is one of my favorite reference points where that is a disco song.

N/I - Absolutely.

JP - But, when Conway sang it, it was a fucking country song, and it’s like, “You know what? Good point.” And that’s good to remember, especially in this whole Americana world, where people are genre hopping so much. Part of it is artists getting younger and younger, trying to figure out their sound. I am so glad - I get real existential, meta, astro, whatever the fuck about life in general, but particularly with music and creativity. I don’t have a formatted schedule for how I write.

N/I - Like writing for an hour each day or something like that?

JP - Well, a bunch of my friends are like “Three mornings a week, I dedicate 10am to 1pm for writing songs.” and I’m like “God fucking speed, because that’s not how I do it.” I wake bolt upright in the night, and I scramble to write things down. But it’s been four years since I put a record out, and every day that goes by, I can’t help but be like “I am so glad those four years had to elapse before these songs came out.” I’m so glad that three years previous to recording it had to elapse. I was hot to trot. And a lot of shit had to happen in my life. I had to grow in a lot of ways. I had to get my shit together. And I’m glad I did….. I needed to be a full thirty-five years old before this thing came out.