J.P. Harris isn’t afraid of the back roads.
A lot of bands on tour stick to the interstates, hitting Salt Lake City, Denver, Lawrence, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Philadelphia in one direction, Washington D.C., Richmond, Nashville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles in the other. Sticking to the highways makes the drives easy, with one major market after the next making the tedious part of touring relatively painless.
But those bands that knock out the big cities while also searching out venues in the small towns are the road dogs worthy of the music biz, the people-person bands that earn fans from town to town, whose work ethic and honest approach is reflected in their music. That approach has made country musician Harris and his band The Tough Choices a favorite in Southwest Colorado. They will return to Dolores tonight with a show at the Dolores River Brewery.
“We rarely do a tour where we only play what music people would call ‘major markets.’ We’ve got some great towns that not many other bands play, but we’ve been going to for years,” Harris said. “It ties into the ethos of what I do. I play country music, man. I like going and playing in big cities, it’s fun. But it feels like a moral obligation to play as many small towns as we can because folks really do appreciate it.”
Harris and his band are about as real and authentic as you can get in the realm of country music – his rich voice belts out songs of failed relationships and loneliness, boozing and box cars, all over a whipping band chock-full of twangy Telecaster fills and dripping with pedal-steel.
He’s a country songwriter who found his way after trucking down a path of punk rock and heavy metal. Rural living led him to listening to country music, while country music playing and songwriting came at the urging of some of his peers.
“It’s like finding a horse that fits you right. You’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can ride horses. I really like horses, but I’ll just muck stables for now.’ And then you finally get on one that’s the right size and you say, ‘Oh man, that’s a hell of a horse, I guess I can ride horses now.’ When I started writing songs, that was sort of how it happened,” he said. “I wrote two or three and played them for a few friends of mine, older musicians I sort of looked up to and had known for a while. And they all just kind of kept prodding me about it and they said, ‘You write good country songs, you should keep doing it.’ Now, its 10 years later and here I am doing it.”
Harris has strong thoughts about the genre. Well aware of the nonsense that is top-40 country, a style he describes as “truck-country garbage” sadly void of the “highway-scholar” aspect, his brand of country is tied into the true roots of the genre. The situations written about in country songs and the feelings those themes evoke have a broad appeal that can break through any wall – getting your heart ripped out hurts, whether you’ve got five or 5 million dollars in the bank.
“As I got older, the stories in country music and the themes around it just made more sense with the life that I was living. I realized, too, that it was more like a common bridge between people with different cultural backgrounds,” Harris said. “I feel like it spans a lot of different political viewpoints and economic strata, and whether they grew up in the city or the country. There is sort of this one commonality as country music: You know, it’s people’s music.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.