From Sin City to Music City — train hopping, banjo making, and apple picking along the way — J.P. Harris, of J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices, has two rules when it comes to making music: keep it country, keep it simple. I caught up with J.P. in Nashville to discuss his debut album, I’ll Keep Calling, and his unintentional road to becoming a musician.
In a town that’s saturated with mediocre country music, it’s refreshing to see straight-up, heart and grit-filled honky-tonk music get a nod. How does it feel to be in Nashville for only a year and win the Nashville Scene’s Best Country Album of the Year?
It feels like there’s hope for country music after all. I’m really excited about it. Being a new guy in town, and definitely anything but a household name, I feel pretty stunned and proud. It goes to show that this town is maybe slowly breaking out of the stereotypical mold of the good ole country boys club of country music.
You’ve got quite the storied past — leaving home at 14, hopping trains across the U.S. making a living however you could get by, most recently as a carpenter in Vermont. Why did you decide to leave Vermont and head south to Nashville?
I considered a bunch of other towns in the southeast, but one reason was to be closer to my family in East Alabama. I also just realized that after two plus years of writing music and touring around and doing what I do, it dawned on me suddenly that I had unintentionally become a professional musician and that if I was going to be a professional musician I needed to make a professional move. You know, if you want to be in film you move to Hollywood. So, I opted for Nashville and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but so far, it’s worked out really well.
What’s this “unintentionally” decided to be a musician?
Well, you know I never thought I would ever, ever, ever be a professional musician. When I started doing this, it was just the idea of going out on tour for fun and trying to make a little bit of money and just getting to be a performer. I always loved playing shows, even if it was just playing music for 20 of my friends around a campfire. I never thought I would actually pursue the destitute and anything but lucrative career of a musician. It always seemed like something that was far from attainable. But, before I knew it, I was touring more than I was home or working a real job, which is one of the parts I like most about where I’m at now; I didn’t ever plan on doing this. The best I could have hoped for three years ago would have been playing some dinky music festival in the northeast. I’ve come a long way in a really short amount of time and the reality is just starting to settle in. It wasn’t until I decided to move and give up the stability of work that I knew I could find, to give up this really small, very comfortable rural life, you know, everything I had built up as my regular life — I was giving up all of that to chase after playing country music and that’s when the unintentional decision became the intentional.
From skate punk bands in your teens to old-time string bands in your early 20s, how did you decide to start playing country music?
My first real tour was with the Flat Iron String Band, me and three other folks (Amanda Kowalski, Sabra Guzman, and Nick Stillman). The four of us piled into this big, dingy Dodge Ram turbo diesel and drove around the U.S. for three months. We made no money but had a great time and multiple manic breakdowns along the way… it was rough and it was clear by the time we got home that we were not long in this world as a band. I also learned that old school traditional music was not the way I wanted to make my living. I wanted something loud and proud, something that could hold its own in a bar room. I tired of being the novelty acoustic band in the corner of some noisy rock club, and I still believe to this day, strongly, that old-time music belongs in the mountains or in the barn, in a square dance, on someone’s porch or in their living room, it’s not something you should try to sell to people. I’d been getting really into honky-tonk music, the sound, the 60s stuff — Faron Young, Buck Owens, Del Reeves — for a year or two before the old-time band, and when I got done with that I just decided, 'goddammit, I’m gonna get home and start my own country band.' I’d never written a country song in my life, didn’t know if I had it in me and I went home and just started picking around, started writing songs, songs started coming out, [which was] all a result of my first attempt at being a musician and going for it, doing it from scratch. I learned a little of what not to do before I entered into the world of tough choices.
The band name, was it always J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices?
Well, the first show I played was this little restaurant/bar in New Hampshire. I’d written five songs and was still looking for a name. I had this rag-tag bunch of dudes playing with me. We were just having fun. It sounded god-awful, but the energy was there and people encouraged me to keep going. I had come up with this name, the Spitfire Serenaders, and the night before the show we went to this old, beautiful farmhouse on the water to rehearse and ended up partying; drinking, smoking, doing everything we could get our hands on. Looking at the table in the morning covered with a bunch of vices — prescription meds, half empty bottles of liquor, cigarettes, a joint — my bass player, Asa, leans in and says, “so, um, really, Spitfire Serenaders, huh?” And, I said, “well, I don’t know. I feel funny putting my name on the front of a band.” And he looked down at the table and looks at me and we’re both smoking a cigarette and he says, “J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices” and chuckles and walks away. So, that was it. I realized real quick over the years that the name has become a very ironic twist to the reality of what it’s like to be in a touring country band, all the ups and the downs.
What are you working on now?
This is pretty exciting. I’m making my first real legit country music video. We’re going to be filming at Dino’s Restaurant, as the sign purports. Dino’s is a bar with the best goddamned hamburgers. Back in May, the Nashville Scene did a feature story on me and said something like, “Harris is to country music what Dino’s is to hamburgers.” It’s a great old dive bar, not intentionally, it just is. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I was taking a leak, and I looked up, and there was rain coming through the bathroom vent. There was a piece of stovepipe sticking out through the ceiling with no cap on it. I was literally getting rained on while I was taking a leak. Great bar, a Nashville staple a block from my house. The video’s for “Two For The Road,” the second song I ever wrote. We have a great crew and my record label, Cow Island Music, is generous enough to give me a budget for it. There will be guest appearances and a lot of local Nashville color.
What are your plans for the next album?
I need to hole up and work. It’s on the horizon, how and when I do not know. I’m not the kind of person that can just sit down and write a song. A few times I have, but songwriting is a lot more spontaneous for me. I have some choruses, but if it doesn’t come right out of me I probably wasn’t meant to write it. I have about half an album now. I’m not too attached to rushing anything. The next album has to be at least as good as the one I just released, if not better. We’ve been on tour the majority of the year. I think I’ve been home maybe 8 weeks; a week a month at best, it’s what you have to do. So, the rest of this fall and early winter I should have some time to make it happen.