J.P. Harris: Interview
“There’s nothing more romantic than being a 15-year-old kid with a backpack and a pair of boots and an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder jumping on a freight train.”
You could fill a lake with all the petty arguments about what is and isn’t “real country” music. The press talks about how bad the Nashville sound is, how its purveyors have lost sight of the real country sound: the grit, the twang, and the stories of working-class, rural life. Country’s about people first and foremost. It’s about telling hard-hitting stories that resonate with people. If your songs don’t strike a chord with your audience, then you sure as hell aren’t a country singer. J.P. Harris understands this basic principle of country music perfectly. As a hard-traveling honky-tonk singer, he’s been around lots of interesting characters, but he also understands what it’s like to work hard for a living, having spent years off the grid working via his own two hands. That kind of honest appreciation of working life is what sets him apart. On his new album with his band The Tough Choices, I’ll Keep Calling, J.P. turns in 12 near-perfect examples of how to write a country song, and in so doing lays down quite the gauntlet for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.
Tiny Mix Tapes reached out to him on the road to get some of his stories of traveling the US in boxcars, working with Navajo sheepherders, and incorporating a punk-as-fuck DIY ethos into his strictly traditional honky-tonk sound.
Where are you right now? Where are you calling from?
I’m in Denver. We’re here for the rest of the weekend, playing some shows for a while and hanging around and enjoying the mountain air in the city.
Are you staying with friends?
Yeah. We got a good friend of mine who’s also a musician here. We’re in a house full of awesome lady musicians that’s very nice, and they have a cute dog, so things are OK for us.
Nice. So, you’ve been traveling a lot recently, right?
Yeah. We’ve been out; we’re on tour right now, we’ve been out about two-and-a-half weeks. We’ve been bouncing all over the Southwest and up the West Coast. Now we’re slowly headed back across the country, and we have about another week left to tour before we get home.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Montgomery, Ala. That’s where I was born. I grew up between there and a little town called Dadeville, Ala., which is where my family had been from for probably 200 or 300 years. They’ve been there since before the Revolutionary War… We moved away right before I turned seven and there was kind of a big economic downturn in Alabama; a lot of jobs lost and a bunch of big companies shut down. My dad was in heavy construction and my mom was a teacher, and we ended up moving out to the middle of nowhere, this little town called Apple Valley in California, which I assure you had no apples whatever. We moved out there, and my dad worked for a dirt-moving company, and then, in the summers and Christmastime and stuff when we were kids, for a couple of years, my folks would ship us back home. We kind of had this funny reality… We got transplanted abruptly out to the middle of nowhere in California, and then kind of chucked back and forth as kids. Back to this teeny little town of Alabama and then back out to this weird little town in California and eventually we moved from there out to Las Vegas. My dad got a new job and [sighs] we were there until I was about 14 and then I decided it was time to split and I stuck a couple of T-shirts and I think, about $42, in ones, in my backpack and jumped on a Greyhound and took off and that was sort of the end of where I grew up officially.
You gotta learn how to make stuff yourself. The seed of that was me and my friends finding a generator and going way out in the desert outside of Las Vegas and throwing these punk shows on a generator and a floodlight, doing it in our own space.
Where did you go on that Greyhound?
I went from there, I went straight out to Oakland, Calif. I’d always wanted to go; when I was a kid, I think my parents took me there when I was maybe, 11 or 12 years old or something, before they split up. I kind of came of age in a punk-rock music scene and all the bands I’d listened to and I’d liked and loved, were all from the Bay Area and all over California. And so, I got a sparkle in my eye and said, “All right, fuck it, I’m going out there. That’s where I’m headed.” I spent about a year there, kind of bounced back and forth between there and Vegas for another year and moved out and lived in Arizona for a while. I herded sheep for a bunch of these old Navajo ladies for about a year and did a lot of train-riding and just kind of bounced around the country, was in Minneapolis and Seattle and just kind of went all over the place and…
Tell me more about the Navajo sheep herders. How did that come about? What was that like?
I was getting burned out on living in the city and I’d been living in squats and abandoned buildings and stuff for a little while, back and forth between there and staying with some friends out in the desert, and I heard that there were all these old Navajo ladies that were living alone out in the desert and needed people to come out and herd sheep for ‘em, and I decided it was time for me to just get completely out of the city for a while. So I headed down there; actually jumped on this nasty, old school bus that barely ran with a couple of other random dirt bags and I rode through the night and woke up in Flagstaff, Ariz., and then got in the back of this old Chevy Silverado with a couple of other folks and got a ride out about two hours outside of Flagstaff, up in the northeast corner, and got dumped off in the middle of the desert, basically in the middle of nowhere outside of this wood hut that the Navajo Indians built called a hogan and woke up first thing in the morning about 5 am with this 55 year old Navajo woman standing over me in this hogan with a dirt floor and with these vertical wood posts all around and it’s all covered in mud. There’s no electricity or water or anything like that out there and I got woken up at 5 am with this old lady saying, “Hey, you, sheepherder kid. Hey, get up, get up! I need your help. Get up!” Then, I got thrown in the back of a pickup truck and driven about five or six miles down this crazy dirt road that didn’t even look like a road. First thing I did out there, first morning before the sun even came up, is I had my arms all the way up the back end of a cow, trying to pull a stillborn calf out with a come-along. That set the stage for what the next bunch of years of my life were going to be like.
Whoa. How long did you stay down there herding sheep?
I was there, on and off, for about a year. I traveled around a little in between. I would stick around for a month or so, and then cut out and ride trains out and go do other stuff. Head up to Colorado and hang out or head over to California and just kind of bounced around doing that for about a year. Eventually, deciding that I had never been to New England before, and an old girlfriend of mine had grown up there, and said, “Hey, let’s go. Let’s get ourselves up to New England for the summer and go check it out; Vermont is really nice.” “All right. Cool. Sounds like a plan.” We rode trains and I worked my way through Texas and then rode straight up and over to Minnesota and over through Milwaukee, Chicago, whole bunch of other stuff, and got thrown off a train in New York by a couple of rail cops and hitch-hiked through the night the rest of the way and finally got to Vermont. We split about half a year later and then I just stuck around there until just recently, when I moved down to Nashville. I was there about 11 years.
Where was that in Vermont?
Down in southern Vermont. I lived in this little town called Halifax, which has a post office and a little elementary school and about 10 houses and that’s about it. It’s about 20 miles from the nearest city, which is a town called Brattleboro, about 20,000 people in it.
What did you do for a job down there?
Oh God, I did everything. I did all sorts of stuff in the first couple of years, just picking up work wherever I could. I was scrapping sheet metal, or I worked harvesting apples in a couple of different orchards, and running equipment, and I went from there. I eventually started getting into carpentry work when I was out in the Navajo reservation. I just kind of worked my way up to that, working on old churches and barns and just got really obsessed with the old-fashioned way of building and doing all this. I was living in cabins that were way up on the logging roads… From the time that I moved to the Navajo reservation when I was about 16, until just this past September when I moved to Nashville, I hadn’t had any power or running water that entire time, so I was basically living in hunting camps the whole time. But I made it work pretty good and I managed to get a business off the ground doing carpentry and restoration work. Did a lot of logging in the wintertime, running heavy equipment; basically anything people would pay me to do… I did pretty good for myself.
So, it sounds like you’re the real life embodiment of that “Dirty Jobs” guy. [Mike Rowe]
[laughing] Yeah, definitely the “Dirty Jobs” guy.
What’s the dirtiest job you ever did?
I’ve been knee-deep in a septic tank… I’ve been under a bulldozer with a blow torch trying to thaw frozen diesel in 30 below weather and I’ve been shingling a roof in 60 mile-an-hour winds when it was 60 below. That was actually the worst.That was the coldest job ever.
I needed to make a living for myself, and having not gone to high school, I never got a GED and I never did any community college. [I] asically graduated 8th grade and that was the end of my real, formal education. I kind of realized that if I wanted to make a living, keep myself afloat, then I needed to just get good at a lot of manual trades,and anything I couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do, I just figured I had to learn to do myself.
You know, a lot of young people are traveling the rails and heading out through the country, making their way like you were doing. But a lot of them are doing it for romantic reasons, like the old Woody Guthrie kind of romanticism of the countryside. Did it ever feel like something romantic to you? Was that ever a driving force or was it just you needed to get it done?
Well, yeah to a certain degree. For a lot of the real underground punk-rock music, the attitude that came along with it was really DIY: You gotta learn how to make stuff yourself. The seed of that was me and my friends finding a generator and going way out in the desert outside of Las Vegas and throwing these punk shows on a generator and a floodlight, doing it in our own space. We didn’t need to find a club, we didn’t need to find an Elks’ Hall to rent. So, that sort of mentality spread into everything, like learning how to make our own medicine, learning how to build our own structures, all that kind of stuff.
I feel like, definitely when I was younger, hell, there’s nothing more romantic than being a 15-year-old kid with a backpack and a pair of boots and an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder jumping on a freight train. That’s the stuff you read about. Of course it was romantic but it came to a point of necessity to take all that excitement and adventure and turn it into something that was sustainable and also made me feel like I still maintained a lot of my independence… I don’t feel I ever lost the romanticism for it though. There’s nothing more inspiring than finishing a day’s work and looking at a big pile of wood in your yard or looking at a show poster you just made with a can of spray paint and a couple of exacto blades.
I didn’t know anything about train riding when I first started doing it. I just got on a train and I had met an old train rider, a guy from New York City named Scratch, who I ended up taking my first train ride with in Oakland.
So, do you think it helps coming from a hard-working background when you go into the music industry?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve built the whole band from the ground-up, everything from finding the van and keeping it running to booking the shows, to managing everything, writing the music and that. There’s a real disconnect a lot of times between musicians and what they feel like they’re owed, just for being a musician… It’s a funny thing, particularly with the kind of music that I play, this old-school country music. You start to realize when singing a song about life in the country or singing a song about your truck breaking down or your woman leaving you or whatever: These things, they become a lot more tangible when you realize that you’ve been right in the same hard scrabble shoes for a long time. When I get up on a stage and I sing a song about truck-driving, I’ve been the guy on the nasty ice-covered road in a big, three-ton dump truck trying to tug a broken piece of equipment out of a muddy ditch. I feel like it’s given me a much more visceral taste for why people even wrote this music in the first place, why this music is so identifiable to so many people around the country. It’s real working class kind of music and being somebody who’s been a self-employed working class, hard scrabble guy for a bunch of years, it’s a nice connection to have. You really understand a broader base of people outside of just your little music world.
You’ve always been into country music. Did you play a lot of it when you were traveling around?
Yeah, I actually got started playing country music when I was a teenager, before I left home. I was playing in a punk-rock band, a thrash band and all that stuff and it was all about big-ass amplifiers and wild electric guitars and ass-hard and heavy. When I hit the road, like I said, I didn’t live anywhere that had any electricity for about 13 years, so real quickly I realized that I needed a guitar and then real quickly I realized that it wasn’t fun to play power chords on the guitar anymore when you have an acoustic guitar and you’re around a campfire. I started to just see that there was a little more of an accessible element to playing country music. So, I started learning some old Roger Miller tunes, and some Hank Williams stuff. I’m sure that there was a lot of the aforementioned romanticizing about the lifestyle too when you’re sitting around in a train yard in the middle of nowhere in Omaha or wherever the hell you are, and you got an acoustic guitar and you’re playing “Lonesome Whistle” by Hank Williams or something like that. You feel like you’re really walking in those shoes.
You say you left home at 14. What caused you to leave home at such a young age?
[long pause] It’s kind of a really long story. But… I love my family and they are a wonderful bunch, all of them, top to bottom: My father, my mother, my brother, and both of their respective families, but things were strained back at home and there was a lot of other extenuating circumstances. There was a lot of real violent stuff happening in Las Vegas at that time and there was a big Neo-Nazi, skinhead population that obviously me and my crew didn’t mesh very well with. So there was a lot of pretty scary things going on. Between that and things being a little shaky at home (and then just wanderlust), I knew that, for whatever reason, I was not going to be happy staying at home. I started to get into a little bit of trouble with the law. I had been picked up by the cops here and there, nothing too big, but definitely a little problematic. I started drinking at a really young age on a pretty regular basis. It was just a whole compounding of stresses and dreams and good and bad and everything in between; I decided that the best thing to do was just split. I think having that same DIY and punk-rock attitude, I knew that I wanted to get out and create something, I wanted to get out and do something, I wanted to be a part of something going and the last thing I could see myself focusing on at all was spending a summer running around with my buddies and then going into high school for another four years.
I keep hearing the word, hobo jungles, pop up. Are there really hobo jungles?
Yeah. Kind of in a loose sense. Train-riders got our whole own set of lingo and symbols. I practiced all that sort of stuff when I was traveling around on trains a lot. You find a good spot and you draw a certain symbol with a piece of a grease pen on an underpass, so other train riders who come by can look at it. There’s a whole language. There’s a symbol that got widely spread. It’s 2 circles overlapping each other. It means: Never give up. Which means: This is a rough town, you’re gonna have a hard time getting out of here on the trains, but just get to the next town. There’s a cat face, that meant “Nice Lady.” So it meant : There’s a nice lady that lives here that’s friendly to hobos. So, you could probably go and beg some bread, or you could maybe sleep in her backyard or something like that. There is this real hobo culture that’s still alive, especially through a lot of these younger folks that chose it as their means of getting around.
What you call a jungle is anywhere you find a patch of bushes that’s a good wait spot to find a freight train. That’s what everybody calls a jungle and sometimes, there’s sort of unspoken customs about how you treat them. You try to keep them kind of clean, sometimes if you got extra food, you leave a couple of extra cans of food, or a little jug of water or something in the jungle. Some jungles will be so well set up, there’ll be pots and pans that people leave hanging in trees, a little fire pit dug out, and all that sort of stuff. But a jungle really means anything from a patch in the bushes where you can hide from the rail cops and put your sleeping pad down for a night, all the way up to these real built-up camps that people have built and maintained over the years on the edges of all these freight lines across the U.S. I spent a lot of time sitting in those waiting for a freight train to come.
I didn’t know anything about train riding when I first started doing it. I just got on a train and I had met an old train rider, a guy from New York City named Scratch, who I ended up taking my first train ride with in Oakland. I just kind of learned from other people where not to ride and how to be safe and what to watch out for, the ins and outs of it.
I had my arms all the way up the back end of a cow, trying to pull a stillborn calf out with a come-along. That set the stage for what the next bunch of years of my life were going to be like.
Did you get connected to Navajo culture when you were down with the Navajo? Did you get connected with the spirituality or was it just gritty work?
Yeah. I think that was a big part of why I was down there. As a kid, I grew up in a household where nobody was really church-going. I think I started to identify with some sort of a more primal spirituality for a while in my life, which I think, still at this point I do. There was a short period of time where I think I fully adopted a lot of the Native American traditional customs, more the spirituality, on a day-to-day basis. I think it was really the first experience I ever had in my life where I was living with people who legitimately came from a thousand-year-old – if not twice as long – a religion from time immemorial. It was very defined but there weren’t written books about it. There wasn’t a big, dogmatic history of war and violence and all this other crazy stuff. I spent a lot of time peripherally involved in Native American spirituality, helping out in a lot of ceremonies, being the kid who was hauling wood for the fires, or hauling water, or digging shitters out in the middle of the desert for a big Sundance, or stuff like that. I took away a lot of things, spiritually, that I couldn’t really define. Once I got there, it was really easy to fall into the same rhythms with these old Native Americans.
In normal white America, black America, or whoever, basically non-indigenous people in this country, you can pick up and change and do whatever you want with your religion, like you change your underwear if you want. You can be a Zen Buddhist this day and then the next day you can decide to be a Universalist. Five years down the road, you can get married and consider converting to Judaism and you split up with your wife and get married to someone else and become Catholic. There isn’t a personal, cultural identity in that deep of a way in any religions in the world that I see, other than in indigenous ones. So, I saw that this is something that these people lived and breathed and it was their full existence from the beginning of their lives to the end of their lives. There was no option or idea of even changing the options about what they believed in. I think that was the heaviest thing I saw. Their religion was so intrinsically a part of every day of their life. They didn’t set aside just Sunday mornings or a prayer before dinnertime or any of that sort of stuff to practice their spirituality, it was a constant part of every thing they did and every moment. Butchering sheep an old lady would say a quick prayer in about 30 seconds, and she’d get up in the morning before that and burn some sage in the front door, say a prayer. It was just part of what you did. That’s heavy; that’s a very amazing thing to witness that people can feel so fully involved in their faith. It’s who they are and who their culture is.