I don’t really like films. Never watch them. But I love Elvis. So, about 20 years back I decided to watch all his movies.
They all seemed to go like this. The King found himself doing a menial job in some small hick town in Indiana or somewhere, ended up meeting some pretty local girl, taking her to a dance where he just happened to sing like a God.
To be fair I owe my love of country to two things. Firstly, when I was very small, hearing Waylon Jennings sing “Good Ol’ Boys” on TV every Saturday night before my favourite show The Dukes Of Hazard (and no, I’ve never seen the film) but a little later, to a compilation called simply “Elvis Country”.
Both those things seemed apposite when thinking about JP Harris and this utterly magnificent album. Not only is he – just like a character on one of those films – an in-demand carpenter (he’s also travelled the country, often alone, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains while making his living as a farm labourer, shepherd, woodsman and Christ knows what else, like some modern-day Woody Guthrie).
It’s not just that, though, it turns out that packing all this into his 35 years on this planet, has given Harris the sort of collection that Presley himself could have sank his teeth into if there was ever a follow-up to be made.
“JP’s Florida Blues #1” starts off the album in rip-roaring fashion, coming in with the same urgency and incessant rhythm as Chuck Berry’s – and Elvis’, yes him again! – “Promised Land”. But as far as I can recall, that song didn’t finish with the hook, “well, these high-flying situations, led to some minor complications, and I am sweating it out in this motel room alone…..”
If we can assume that one is from personal experience, then we can guess most of the others are too, as Harris bares his soul this time around.
He is a wonderful songwriter as well, and the way he weaves characters into these stories is Springsteen-esque. “Lady In The Spotlight” is an acoustic tale of a small town girl, and you’d best believe she’s living in a lonely world, while the intensely personal and somewhat harrowing “When I Quit Drinking” (key line: “when I quit drinking I’m thinking of starting up again…”) is a glimpse into a world that luckily many of us will never understand.
This sound is so timeless, though, that we’ll all get the songs. “Long Ways Back” offers a cracked, fragile, late night world view. The title track, with its wonderful imagery, offers the thought: “why did I go out looking for answers, in the topless bars, with the pole dancers?” and still manages to sound like it was recorded on Harris’ back porch.
“Hard Road” has a real Allman Brothers, Southern rock vibe, “I Only Drink Alone” is built around a classic piano tinkle, and “Runaway” sounds like it could have only been crafted by an itinerant troubadour on the dirt roads, armed only with a guitar and a dream.
It is interesting that Don Henley praised JP’s last album, because “Miss Jeanne-Marie” sounds like The Eagles might have done if they’d truly explored country, and the lap steel work here is wonderful.
“Jimmy’s Dead And Gone” sounds like it could be Old Crow Medicine Show – one of their number Morgan Jahnig is the producer – and it has a playful side too. Autobiographical, it contains the magnificent line: “you’re goddamn right, I’ve written a song about a train…” to finish. As if to say it understands the lineage and the history too.
The album crackles with energy. Largely because it was recorded with no rehearsals and by a band that were encouraged to bring their own ideas to the studio, and, perhaps because of that, it’s striking how short “Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing” is. The ten tracks total only 31 minutes, but it is a glorious brevity with nothing extraneous allowed. A fabulous album and if you’ll forgive the obvious pun when it comes to dealing with a man who makes his living as a carpenter, on his third album JP Harris has absolutely nailed it.