Honky-tonk singer-songwriter J.P. Harris was doing some side-of-the-road repairs to his band's van when we connected with him via cell phone last week outside of Austin.
"Yeah, I was just drilling and clamping some stuff on the van," Harris says with a chuckle. "Gotta keep everything running. I guess I'm kind of in charge of everything on the road—just the general handy guy, fix-it guy, heavy truck driver, etc."
While building a music career and living in locales ranging from the Southwest to Vermont, Harris has worked as a carpenter, home-restorer, shepherd, farm-laborer, heavy-equipment operator and banjo-builder, he says.
"I was always pretty good at picking up all manner of manual labor. I figured out early on that I would have to learn to do stuff, rather than hire somebody to come over and build a shed in my backyard or cut firewood for me," he says. "And it has allowed me to get my foot in the door for this glorious low-paid lifestyle."
Harris refers to the proudly traditional country music he plays with his band, the Tough Choices. As showcased on his 2-month-old debut album, I'll Keep Calling, Harris plays the real-deal sort of honky-tonk that is rarely heard these days—the sort of music perfected by Buck Owens, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.
Harris and the band will play Friday, June 15, at Club Congress. Opening the show will be the Honkytonk Underground, a Tucson collective led by Mike Hebert and featuring a rotating roster of musicians drawn from some of the Old Pueblo's most-talented twang-leaning players. For this gig, Hebert's announced collaborators include Chuck "Wagon" Maultsby, Ned Sutton, Neil Harry, Loren Dircks and Emilie Marchand, but surprise guests are also expected.
The concert is actually Harris' second in Tucson in the last few months. He and the band played an afternoon show at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair in March. The unenviable booking, though, turned out to be a successful gig; judging from eyewitness accounts, Harris won over the sleepy afternoon crafts-and-gyros crowd.
A self-taught musician and songwriter, Harris grew up in Alabama and then the high desert of central California, under the influence of his grandparents' country albums and his parents' collection of classic 1970s rock albums. He says his final full year of school was the eighth-grade, and that he left home at 14.
"It's a long story that I won't go into, but let's just say I felt there were a lot of things out in the world that I had to experience for myself," says Harris, who recently turned 29 and now lives in Nashville.
Early on, he played in punk-rock bands; he was attracted to the rebellious attitude and do-it-yourself spirit, two elements that still influence his music.
"But when I was on the road, I had to do without an electric guitar and amplifier, and I started busking," he says. "It was then that I started listening to a lot of Johnny Cash, the Statler Brothers and Roger Miller. All that got me interested in old Appalachian music and early bluegrass—the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers. It progressed chronologically from there to the honky-tonk of the 1960s, especially Buck Owens and Johnny Paycheck. I just fell in love with that sound."
After years on the road, Harris took his first stab at songwriting. "About 2 1/2 years ago, I wrote that first song while driving home in my truck from a job site. I was humming the melody, and the lyrics just came to me, so I started singing them."
None of his other songs have come easily, but that one—"I'm Stayin' Here," from the new album—convinced Harris that "maybe I could write country songs."
Soon, he was putting together a band to play the songs he created. "Part of my motivation was I couldn't get out and see the sort of old-school country bands I loved. I mean in Nashville, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York City, there might be a small contingent and a couple of clubs, but there just didn't seem to be a whole lot of bands playing what I wanted to hear."
Now he and his band are working over irresistible two-steppin' tunes and tear-in-your-beer ballads. But Harris still considers himself a punk-rock kid at heart, and notes that a lot of up-and-coming country musicians he runs into have punk backgrounds.
"I think punk and traditional country share an outlaw spirit and aren't content with following authority. Not to mention that independent, DIY thing, a sense of community and a concern with authentic feelings."