JP Harris: "Honest music can still succeed without a huge financial or record-industry backing"

NH: Both your music and your life itself resemble the lives of many classic country singers, because you haven’t had an easy life—you’ve worked as a farm laborer, as an equipment operator, as a lumberjack, as a maker of instruments, as a carpenter...  Do you think that living a tough life gives you a different outlook on life that helps you sing and write songs?


JP Harris: Yes, indeed. Country music has always been really focused on the everyday struggles of the working person...I think this was what initially attracted me to it in the first place. There have been many great country singers and songwriters that have never really lived the life they sing about, but it seems true that most of the greats have dealt with some level of strife and defeat that has left its imprint on their music. 


NH: We noticed that your website isn’t really called after you, but you call it I Love Honky Tonk. Does this reflect your attitude toward music?


JP Harris: I wanted something simple, and to the point, like my music. The phrase is repeated in a lot of our social media and merchandise, and is a reference to a common styling (“I Heart Town Name,” etc.) that has been around in the US for many decades.

NH: You recorded your first album, "I´ll Keep Calling" (2012) in just three days, and it’s full of what new hillbilly music lovers want to hear: fresh new honky tonk sounds, mixed with classic sounds, truck driving country songs, fiddle, steel guitar... it also won “Best Country Album of 2012″ from The Nashville Scene, among other accolades. Did you expect such a warm welcome?


JP Harris: I did not expect the great response I got from my first album, but that positive feedback is what has kept me going. It was very grass-roots, carrying itself around the globe without a big media machine backing it, which just goes to show that honest music can still succeed without huge financial or record-industry backing.


NH: Not too many truly good truck driving songs have been recorded lately, other than those by Dale Watson and Leland Martin, but “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” is one of the hottest tracks from your first album. What’s the story behind the song and how did you get to record it?


JP Harris: “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” is one of my favorite songs to play—it’s the only song I wrote while actually on the road, to the hum of the tires as we drove across the country some years back. It’s my first and only truck-driving song so far, and somewhat of a “thank-you” to the kind-hearted ladies who’ve taken care of us along the way.

NH: Do you feel closer to classic country singers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens, Dave Duddley, etc.  than to the new traditionalist singers like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis, or even the outlaw breed like Waylon, Willie or David Allan Coe? Who are your favorite artists?


JP Harris: Yes, I definitely feel a strong connection to the old singers, but over the last five or six years I have learned to appreciate the new traditionalists a lot more. Being who I am and my life’s story, I have always felt a connection with the outlaw singers, even if my music doesn’t reflect the influence as much as those from the 50’s and 60’s. 


My biggest influences are mainly Del Reeves, George Jones, and Johnny Paycheck, though I draw from a wide range.


NH: Tell us about your sophomore album, "Home Is Where The Hurt Is" (2014). You probably could have cut it with studio musicians but you called on your own band, the Tough Choices. Why?


JP Harris: I wanted to make a follow-up album that felt more like our live shows, and bringing in folks who have toured with me seemed like the natural choice. We’ve traveled together all over the country, and it makes recording so much easier when you’ve been through the hardest part of being a musician, which is touring. You’ve always seen worse on the road than what can happen in the studio!

 NH: This latest album has great songs like “Give A Little Lovin',” “A Breaking Heart,” “Young Women and Old Guitars,” and “Truckstop Amphetamines.” In the latter we find a dramatic lullaby where we may have been expecting an uptempo song. Tell us a little about it, please.


JP Harris: “Truckstop Amphetamines” is a hard one to talk about, as it’s a very sad and true song for me. I wrote it very specifically for someone I care very much about, someone who has been in and out of my life, and it is really a very sad mix of apology and resignation. I do enjoy playing it but it can be hard at times because it’s like reliving a very sad time in my life, though I am very happy that it has been so well received as it is the first song of its type I’ve recorded. 


NH: In “Maria” you sing about lost charms, wrong ways… “Sometimes you lose yourself just to figure who you are” or “If I had my boy’s charm like I used to, if I knew some rich folks out in L..A. If your hair was black your name was Maria then I wouldn´t be singing songs about Tennessee...” . Do you agree with Sarah Gayle Meech when she says “A heartache makes a damned good song”? And by the way, was Maria a real woman? 


JP Harris: “Maria” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. The girl Maria is fictional, part of the imagined alternative to the sad story I’m telling in the song. I’m basically painting a picture of how things could have been better for me and the woman I’m singing to if we lived a different life together—but basically admitting that things are not how I planned and hoping we can make the best of it despite my own shortcomings. And yes, heartache makes for the best country songs, always.

NH: Tell us about your collaboration with Americana star, Nikki Lane?


JP Harris: Nikki is a good friend of mine and a great singer. She and I have a lot in common, including all the ups and downs of launching a country music career in the modern world, in a music industry that is changing a lot, and I think that’s always made us a natural pair. She’s one of the bravest gals in country music, fearless and determined, and I respect that a lot.  

NH: And also with Chance McCoy... Are you considering a collaboration with Old Crow Medicine Show, singing or writing songs with them in the future?


JP Harris: Chance and I have known each other for more than a decade. We met well before either of us had the careers we have now. He and I did some recording of our own, and we are hoping to find more gaps in our regular tour schedules to play more duet shows. As for OCMS, you never know, I might just write a song someday that works for them!

NH: What are the differences between this sophomore album and the previous one? What do you feel has changed, if anything, about your voice, your acting, your composing skills...?


JP Harris: I feel MUCH more confident as a singer now than I did some time ago. I’ve got many more shows under my belt since then, which has also re-shaped my attitude toward how to perform, how to work with a band, and how to approach recording. The new album feels much more natural, if not slightly looser (in a positive way) and relaxed than my first album. Also I feel my songwriting has matured, reflecting a lot more experience in the music world and life in general on my end. 


NH: What’s the secret of your success? Are you planning to follow this same formula in the near future? 


JP Harris: My “secret” has always been just being myself! So if it’s working so far I’m gonna stick with it. I’m sure there are many folks who would try to shape me and my music to be more marketable, but I’m not in this for fame or fortune—those things are great and all, but writing and playing my music is one of the few things in life that I feel gives it real meaning. If my music lifts people’s spirits, helps them through a hard time, helps them remember how fortunate they are, or simply makes them dance, then I’m doing my job right.