Country musician J.P. Harris is building his career the old-fashioned way
FARMINGTON — Trying to stay grounded isn't much of a problem for J.P. Harris. That's not really a surprise, given his background as guy who left home at 14 and spent the next several years hopping freights, squatting in abandoned buildings and even working for a year as a Navajo sheep herder. But it still makes you sit up and take notice when no less a popular music authority than Rolling Stone practically gushes about him.
That was the case earlier this year when the online edition of the magazine named him one of the "21 Country-Music Artists You Need to See" at South by Southwest, the annual music and media conference in Austin, Texas, that serves as the largest gathering of its kind in the world. The Rolling Stone list placed Harris in the lofty company of Kelly Willis, Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel — three of the most accomplished and revered acts in Texas roots music. His inclusion in that fast company certainly didn't escape Harris' attention, but it didn't cause him to lose his hard-earned perspective on his art or on life in general.
"It's cool to get some recognition like that, but I don't know what to make of it," Harris said by phone from California last weekend. "I don't want to downplay it, but it's funny — because of the Internet world, things on the Internet look a lot different than they do on the ground."
To illustrate that point, Harris — who will perform with his band, the Tough Choices Wednesday, July 1 at Crash Music in Aztec — said he and his band played a show at a club in Detroit shortly after that story was posted online. It was a nice club, Harris said, and though it was still early spring, it was unseasonably warm in the Motor City that night, meaning bad weather wouldn't discourage music fans from going out. Harris and his band were excited about playing in a big city with a storied music past, perhaps sensing they were beginning to build some real momentum.
But only 12 people showed up. So much for hitting the big time.
Harris laughed as he told the story, explaining he has never really placed much stock in the dream of becoming an overnight sensation. Building a real music career, he knows, is something that's accomplished only through sweat equity, through hundreds of nights of shows in backwater honky tonks and hundreds of thousands of miles in a touring van.
"It's easier and easier for people to garner attention on a website from some big magazine," he said. "But when you see the follow through, you realize it's neither here nor there. The music industry has always been a game of smoke and mirrors, anyway. Maybe because of the Rolling Stone article people will be a little more willing to come out and see me and pay $15 instead of bitching about having to pay $5."
In a way, Harris almost sounds relieved that the attention didn't result in a quantum leap forward for his career. While he maintains he's worked very hard and feels like he certainly deserves whatever success has come his way, he looks with disdain at lightweight musical counterparts who are far more style than substance, describing them as funny-looking music school kids who are able to jump from the ground to the fourth or fifth floor because of their connections or their looks.
Of course, that's a description that could fit many of the top-selling acts on the country music charts today, where sugary, insipid pop music sung with a nasally twang passes for authentic. Call it musical Naugahyde.
So it's also more than a little strange that when Harris — who bounced around all over the country in his teens as a punk rock devotee — finally decided to make a home for himself, he chose Nashville, the seat of the mainstream country music industry. But he's far from a fish out of water there, insisting the real artistic atmosphere in that city is much different than the glitz-and-glamour image that industry insiders on Music Row and chamber of commerce types like to promote.
"I love it — it's a great little town," he said, describing the supportive, tight-knit community of songwriters there that exists apart from the much of the industry.
"Once you get there, you realize how small that community is," he said. "On any given night, I might wind up on stage with somebody who plays with Miranda Lambert on a regular basis. ... It's technically an industry town, but it's a very small city, and once you get outside of downtown, it's a fairly rough-and-tumble little Southern city. It's not much different from Louisville or Chattanooga. ... That weeds out the Hollywood glamour."
It's also a very productive place to try to make music, he said. Then again, Harris has managed to find inspiration in all sorts of environments, including the year he spent on the rez in northeast Arizona, herding sheep for a group of old Navajo women. After being awakened before dawn, Harris would drive his herd up to a mesa to graze, then get the sheep back down into the valley before dark. It was a solitary lifestyle that left lots of time for contemplation, artistic and otherwise. Harris sometimes passed the days on that sunny mesa by dragging along a cheap, beat-up pawn shop acoustic guitar and teaching himself to be a songwriter.
"There's a lot of sadness I still carry around from seeing the very, very plain results of hundreds of years of change and dislocation (among Navajos)," he said of his experience with that culture. "There are still a lot of conflicts within the reservation."
But Harris was pleased to discover it was still possible for most people on the reservation to live a peaceful life, even with all the outside influences that swirled around them.
"They had an understanding that the world around them was always going to be changing, but there was an identity they were going to hang on to," he said. "I've never experienced a culture with so much identity. That was a really, really good experience for a teenage punk kid coming from the city who was angry at so many things in life."
That experience has gone a long way toward shaping who he is as a person and as an artist, Harris said. It's no coincidence that when he talks about his music, he refuses to characterize it as anything more than country, eschewing any of the fashionable genre and sub-genre descriptions that have arisen over the past couple of decades. He's not sure when he made the decision to be a musician, but he said it likely came at the point when he realized the songs he had been writing and performing around the county were resonating with people on a core level. He hopes that's what he's accomplished with his two independent releases, 2012's "I'll Keep Calling" and 2014's "Home Is Where the Hurt Is," and that will remain the goal when he steps back in the studio this winter to record disc No. 3.
"I'd lose my mind if I ever quit doing this," he said. "I want to make the most honest music I can. It all comes from the same place — I want to make music that people can identify with. I want to make a record they can take to their estranged grandparents' house, put on and listen to, and everybody can smile."
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