AZTEC — He's been a switchman, brakeman and yard master for the railroad in El Paso, a rodeo clown and roper throughout the Southwest, a radio programmer in Louisiana and recently settled in Albuquerque with a feisty macaw parrot named Charlie.
On Friday, JD Strait, country singer-songwriter with a baritone voice in the neighborhood of Johnny Cash's, will bring his narrative-driven traditional country songs for a live set at Crash Music.
The concert will kick off this year's Boots and Brews Festival, which continues on Saturday with performances at Riverside Park.
“There's a famous saying in music by songwriter Harlan Howard, ‘All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth,'” Strait said. “Every one of my songs follows that credo — just do the music justice and tell the truth.”
In 2010, after years working off stage, Strait decided to make entertaining people with his resonant voice a full-time gig.
“I've been blessed getting a second chance to play music,” he said. “It's pretty cool, and it's all for the love of the music.”
In 2012, Strait, now 58, released his first full-length album, simply titled, “Stories,” to critical acclaim and heavy airplay in America and Europe. He won Country Song of the Year for his ballad “I Love You Girl” at the Hollywood Media Association awards in 2011.
Strait grew up in El Paso surrounded by country and R&B music courtesy of his father's position as a general manager for an officer's club at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“My dad loved R&B and country, so I grew up listening to a lot of the greats,” Strait said. “In our house, there was a photo of my dad with Willie Nelson circa 1960. (“Take this job and shove it” outlaw country legend) Johnny Paycheck stayed at our house. I soaked it all up, the music was a part of growing up.”
Strait naturally gravitates toward the traditional outlaw sound made famous by towering giants of the genre Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver.
“When (Johnny) Cash got busted in Juarez in '63, for amphetamines, my dad got a late call from him,” Strait said. “He told my dad, ‘It's been a long, hard road, can't sleep, can't do the show tonight.' This was just part of the entertainment business, but the music and talent made the biggest impression on me.”
Though he's worked with various musicians to support him playing live, Strait is most proud of his latest cohorts in country music, his backing band, The Country Conspiracy.
“These guys are the biggest secret in New Mexico,” he said. “They're my kind of guys playin' my kind of music.”
His drummer played with Merle Haggard.
Strait says he takes lyrical inspiration from the music he absorbed growing up in Texas.
“I love the Four Tops, Spinners, Gladys Night and the Pips, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, especially Red Sovine, a great storyteller whose songs ‘Teddy Bear' and ‘Giddy up Go' are incredible narrative songs. The whole song tells a story that just tears your heart out.”
Strait uses his diverse life experience as raw material for the ballads he performs.
“I've been a cowboy, a railroader, a firefighter, in radio. Now I get to be an entertainer, and I'm not done yet,” he said. “I love (contemporary country acts like) Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, but that ain't me. I'm outlaw country telling tales of railroadin', heartbreak and some good things too. I'm all country — that's what I do.”
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.