In a culture that claims, or wants, to be obsessed with authenticity even as we log countless hours soaking up “reality” television, folks like J.P. Harris are living an existence that is 95% heart and the rest a heady dose of sweat, backbone and can-do attitude.
Harris is the kind of brash, kind, hardworking and jovial man Americans used to be stereotyped as abroad. An affable, scrappy outlaw in the very best sense of the word, who cheerily brews cauldrons of gumbo for fans before shows and stays long after the last song, sharing drinks and stories with the folks who came to see him. Then it’s off to the next stop, or home and up at the crack of dawn to bang nails with his construction business.
After being voted Best Country Album in the country music mecca of Nashville, touring relentlessly with bands like the Old Crow Medicine Show, appearing in Rolling Stone and having songs in movies starring people like Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, you'd think Harris would be living the dream in a rhinestone jumpsuit and swanky Airstream. But that’s just not who he is, and after spending five minutes with the gravelly voiced, tattoo-covered beard farmer, it’s apparent that J.P Harris can’t be anything but who J.P Harris is.
And we’re all the better for it.
As he’ll be quick to tell you, Harris plays country music. Not “Americana”, not “folk” and not the type of jock rock bubble gum country you hear on the pop country station. When he gets on stage ? be it a club, ghost town, or bed of a truck ? and leans into the mic, guitar hung low, cocky smile peeking through the signature whiskers, and unleashes his cigarette-raked, bourbon-smooth baritone, it's an immediate education for the uninitiated as to just what country music is supposed to be. Harris’ songs are an escape; tall tales, love stories, drunken disasters, hard highway hours in the middle of nowhere. Real talk about real things, set to real music, for real people.
So how did you wind up playing country music like you do? What’s your story, man?
Well, I was born in Alabama to a very southern family in 1983. We left seeking work when I was young, and lived in the high desert in California and then on to Nevada. I left home when I was 14, spent a lot of time on the highway, freight trains, did a lot of riding in truck beds... Eventually I ended up in the northeast, where I picked up a whole mess of different trades and lived way the hell out in the country for about a dozen years. I got the traveling itch pretty bad again in my mid-twenties, started writing country songs, and the rest is history.
What is it about the style you play that draws you more than others? Why country music?
I spent over a decade just working my ass off as a carpenter, logger, machine operator...I never had power or running water in my more settled days, and hence was drawn towards acoustic and traditional music. Something about it all made sense spending so much time out on log landings, job sites and the like; I came out of a punk rock scene and the DIY aspect of it drove me to learn all these skills and leave the city, and once I actually became a part of the working rural landscape I couldn't imagine playing anything other than country music. It's timeless and easy to identify with, a real common ground kind of music.
What do you think of all the pop country stuff?
I wouldn't say I'm a fan. I'm mostly tired of having to explain that the music I play sounds nothing like what they call country on the radio. People should play and listen to whatever they like, but the commercial stuff these days, in my opinion, has lost any depth, any real resemblance to what the word "country" meant for decades. It's just bubblegum with a cowboy hat, hillbilly pop.
You could make a living just playing music - why continue to do construction?
Well, it's tough to subsist on music alone, what with the old sound not being as popular these days, but moreover I just love working hard. The labor I've done for over half my life is what makes me who I am; I wouldn't interpret life and the world around me the way I do if I spent my days in a writing studio or on the couch with a guitar. The trades I've learned over the last sixteen years are my identity more than music is in some ways, though the two kinda need each other to survive.
What keeps you going out on the road week after week?
Cigarettes, coffee and a stubborn-as-a-mule will to succeed. If I quit playing, quit touring, I don't think I'd live out the rest of my days as a happy man. There's a thrill in watching the state lines fly by, in finding a new little town or pulling into a familiar city that just excites the hell out of me.
What's the craziest thing you’ve ever seen while out and about in the USA?
I've seen a lot of flipped-over trucks, a lot of miles of snow-covered road and a LOT of drunk people. Until I see Burt Reynolds riding a polar bear down I-40 somewhere in Arizona, it'll be hard to blow my mind.
There is something downright American about the type of roots country that you play, why is that? What ingredients make a roots country song different from some pop country tune?
Country is the only truly American music besides the blues, the only one we can lay sole claim to. For five or more decades it was the most popular music here, made by real people who lived the songs they sang. It's the soundtrack to everything that shaped the United States, in the last half of the 20th century if not longer.
What up-and-coming bands are you into?
Well, just keeping in my own genre I'm a fan of Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan and Margo Price. Outside of strict country the list is pretty long!
How do you write your songs? Do they just come to you, or is it a long process?
I'm kind of a "stream of consciousness" songwriter. Every now and again I'll have one that I put down and revisit a few times before it's done, but mostly they come out in one or two sittings.
What is there as a musician that you haven’t done, but want to?
Play the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry. I wouldn't mind opening a show for The Hag and/or Dwight Yoakam either.
Because Music City is about the easiest place to be a musician I've found. No matter what my life brings, I'll always have a guitar and a clean pair of pants stashed somewhere in Nashville.