By Richard Skanse
“There’s something that I gotta say
It’s been needed for a long, long time
They say the truth can set you free
Let me say what’s on my mind …”
That’s Jimmy LaFave, working his trademark honeyed rasp to its fullest effect on the opening verse of “River Road,” one of the standout tracks on his new album, Blue Nightfall. It’s a love song, of course — being that love songs are one of the three things LaFave does best, along with God’s favorite Dylan covers and rollicking, Memphis-roadhouse-style rock ’n’ roll; but it’s also, handily, an apt summation of the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s recent phone chat with LoneStarMusic.com. Though not generally known as a loose cannon along the lines of say, Charlie “What, should I not have said that?” Robison, LaFave isn’t a guy afraid to speak his mind and speak freely on the subject of the state of Texas — and American — music. Or, one suspects, politics. For LaFave — true to the spirit of Woody Guthrie, the man whose music LaFave’s spent the better part of the last couple of years reviving and celebrating as part of the “Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway” tribute tour — is a true believer in the power of song to effect positive change and heal the human spirit. And that holds true whether you’re using your guitar to “kill fascists,” a tried-and-true Chuck Berry beat to pump up a barroom or your one-of-a-kind voice to woo the hardest of hearts.
Blue Nightfall is the Wills Point, Texas-born LaFave’s seventh album and his first in four years, following 2001’s Texoma. It’s also his first for his new label, Minnesota’s Red House Records, which puts him on the same roster as fellow Austin songwriter and “Ribbon of Highway” participant Eliza Gilkyson, as well as non-Texan contemporary folk mainstays like Greg Brown and Lucy Kaplansky. It’s a perfect fit for LaFave, whose music, while unmistakably Texan (and more than a little Oklahoman) in spirit, has never been confined by any such state boundaries. LaFave’s forte is Americana — however you wish to define that somewhat nebulous term. He’s a romantic balladeer of the highest order, an unrepentant roots rocker and a troubadour/song preservationist in the grand Ramblin’ Jack Elliot tradition, as driven by a passion for singing his favorite songs by others as he is his own noteworthy originals. There are “songwriter’s songwriters” and “singer’s singers” — and LaFave, in a league of his own, is more than a little of both. But he’s also a team player, a proud foot soldier in the folk movement that still takes its marching orders from the Tao of Guthrie, and a guy who in all likelihood looks forward to the Annual International Folk Alliance Conference each February like a kid anticipates Christmas. In 2006, the Folk Alliance Conference will be held in LaFave’s hometown of the last 20 years, Austin. But this year’s soiree was held in Montreal, Canada, which is where we caught up with LaFave via phone for our most expensive LoneStarMusic.com interview yet.
So how goes the gathering of the folk tribes in the Great White North?
It’s a blast! I always come to this thing every year, and Montreal’s really cool. It’s always moved from city to city, but I think after it goes to Austin next year it might be going to Memphis permanently. I think the City of Memphis offered [the Alliance] some money to move their offices there and maybe just do it there every year, which is kind of a bummer because all the musicians enjoy being somewhere different every year. But wherever it is, I get more work done here than I do at South By Southwest, because it really is more about the under-the-radar music scene — for singer-songwriter stuff especially — as opposed to SXSW, where it’s a more a lot of just glitz and glamour. This is very grassroots, which is pretty cool.
What exactly goes on at these things? Is it like a big schmoozefest?
Well (representatives from) all the festivals are here, like Newport Folk Festival, Falcon Ridge — all the Kerrville-type festivals from all over the country, and all the big Canadian festivals, too; they all come here to kind of check out the music and buy their season. Plus you meet a lot of other people, like acoustic guitar makers, all the folk magazines … it’s kind of like a trade fair. And what they do is they get a hotel and they put music up and down different floors, and everybody has showcases. It’d be hard for me to describe how much music goes on in one night in this hotel — it’s like every 20 minutes a different person is playing in one of like, 300 different rooms. It’s just crazy. Emmylou Harris was here last night. I mean, you sit in a hotel room at the Folk Alliance, and you play with some of the greatest musicians in the world.
It’s really grown. I think what happened was, there was this kind of Texas contingent — we kind of infiltrated it back when it was held in Toronto, which was about 10 years ago, and now a large part of the thing is Texas people. So we’ve kind of got our Texas foot in the door, and it’s become a big part of the whole thing. It’ll be fun in Austin.
How do the other folkies regard the Texans? Do they regard you with a certain “there-goes-the-Alliance” kind of suspicion?
No! They gotta love that we showed up, because we brought an edge to it. It started out as the North American Folk Alliance and Dance, or something like that — it had all these dance troupes, a lot of folk dancing and just really folky artists. And the more that the singer-songwriters — including Nashville guys, like Kevin Welch and Jim Lauderdale — started coming in, it just really evolved into this big mixing-pot of everyone that plays acoustic-based music. So … they love having us.
Let’s talk a bit about Blue Nightfall. Why such a long gap between this one and your last album? Have you been toiling over it, or just occupied with other things?
Well, you know the Woody thing we’ve been doing [the “Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway” production] has kind of taken up a lot of my time over the last couple of years. And I just had a kid, and that’s kept me pretty busy, along with just doing regular gigs. But to tell the truth, I just wasn’t in a big hurry, because I kind of wanted to just stay out of the mix for a while. It’s probably not a good thing to say that there can be too much music or art in the world, but I mean, there’s just so many people putting CDs out. Including some of my peers — it just seems like every six months, they have a new record out. There’s some artists I respect like Dylan who could put out a record every week and it’d probably be pretty stellar stuff, but for the most part, a lot of the stuff — I get CDs handed to me all over the country, and we listen to them in the van, and we rarely hear anything that’s that good. So I just thought, “I’m going to do a new CD when I’m really ready.” I think Guy Clark said something like he does a CD when he has 10 good songs, rather than because he feels obligated to put something out. It’s about respecting your craft, not trying to mass-produce stuff just to make money. So I just kind of stayed out of the fray a little bit, I guess.
When you stay out of the fray like that, do you keep writing?
Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, that was the hardest thing about this record — deciding on 12 songs to use, because I had plenty of material. “Blue Nightfall” was one of the songs I was definitely going to put on there. There’s actually only one outside song on this album, “Revival,” by Gretchen Peters. I’d been playing that song for three or four years, and a lot of people had asked me to record it. Gretchen’s become a good friend and I’ve admired her songwriting for years; she also wrote “On a Bus to St. Cloud” on my last record. And of course some of my fans have always liked me to do Dylan stuff, so I recorded another Dylan song — “Chimes of Freedom” — but it just didn’t make the final cut of the record. I decided I wanted to work some new angle on it, so I left it off.
How’d you end up on Red House?
I just decided I’d try something new. And, they’d done well with Eliza Gilkyson. I did six records on Bohemia Beat, and I really don’t have any complaints — my Bohemia Beat experience was all great. But that was kind of a one-man organization, which can be very overwhelming, and the guy who ran the label, Mark Shumate, is sort of semi-retired now. And Red House had been talking to me for a couple of years, so I said, “Let’s give it a try … let’s shake up some molecules.” They’ve really got a good plan for my music, and they believe in it. And Bob, the guy who runs Red House, is a big Dylan fan, so we relate a lot and it’s really been a perfect fit.
And yet the first record you give him is like, the first Jimmy LaFave without a Bob Dylan cover on it. You kinda pulled a bait and switch on the poor guy.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know!
Are there any Dylan songs that you can’t — or won’t — sing? Like do you draw the line at say, “Wiggle Wiggle”?
Yeah, I mean … there are some of his songs I’m not as fond of as the others. But any of them I’ve tried to do I pretty much can do, because I’m already attracted to the words and the music. Matter of fact, we did “Not Dark Yet” last night, from Time Out of Mind. I’d just listened to it driving up to the gig in the car, and we started playing it two nights ago, so we’ve played it three times now but never even really rehearsed it. But Dylan songs are just kind of like that for me … I’m just able to soak them up and spew them right out.
Do you know if Dylan is aware of you?
Some people have said that he’s heard my stuff and enjoys it. Actually, Bob from Red House had a meeting with his manager, Jeff Rosen, about a month ago, and he was a big fan. And Steve Ripley from the Tractors was in Dylan’s band back when I was still in Oklahoma, and he actually got me backstage one night. I think one of the great joys of my music career is you grow up enjoying people like Woody and Dylan and Jackson Browne, and through some weird osmosis of just doing what you do and believing in it and sticking to your guns musically, you end up meeting some of these people. And not like through some arranged meeting; you just become part of their musical sphere, and vice-versa. It’s like what’s happened with me and the Guthrie family. I’m good friends with his daughter, and Sara Lee, his granddaughter is in the “Ribbon of Highway” thing. And I know all his Oklahoma relatives … they’ve actually allowed me to go out and represent the family, like when Woody was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, I was the artist representing the family. So it’s just funny — without really trying to do it the showbiz way, going through channels and all that, if you just play your music and try to be true to the people you represent, maybe good things kind of come your way that way. To me that’s the ultimate payoff.
How many of those “Ribbon of Skyway” shows have you done now?
We’ve probably done about 50 of them to date. We just did one in Chicago, and the week before we flew out to L.A. for one, and we’re doing one in New Jersey in a week. There’s a lot of us Texans involved in that — Eliza, Slaid Cleaves … and Michael Fracasso does some of them, too. And Ray Bonniville, who’s moving to Austin. And we always have special guests, like we’ve had Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jackson Browne and Steve Earle. In L.A., we had, of all people, David James Elliott, the star of the TV series J.A.G. — he’s a Woody fan, so he came out and we got him up there.
The show just always gets such good response, and people seem to think it needs to be heard, especially with what’s going on in the world. So it’s become real important to me and really to everyone involved in the show to keep doing it. We’re not making much money doing it — it’s really mainly about getting Woody Guthrie’s message to the people.
You mentioned being a new father. Do you still love the road, or does it start to wear on you?
I pretty much do still love traveling. I kind of cut down a little bit in the last couple of years because I had my kid, but like this trip here, I’m going 21 days away from home. There’s still nothing like getting out of … well, you know, that whole thing where they call Austin “The Velvet Rut.” [Laughs] Or actually just playing in Texas, really — that could be the Velvet Rut. It’s its own music scene in itself, and you can make a comfortable living and have great fans and play really nice places, but you can kind of get a little complacent if you don’t go out and play other places. I think there’s a lot of Texas artists who don’t like it, because they are so big in Texas, and then they go someplace like here in Montreal and nobody’s ever heard of them. So I think it’s important to get out and be an ambassador for Texas music, to take it to other places and to see other places. I think that’s probably what helped make Townes Van Zandt such a great songwriter. He traveled the world. Right now, there’s just too many people down there who maybe listen to two radio stations, and they all like this … I don’t know what else to call it, but this kind of party-buffoon anthem school of songwriting. I’ve got this list now of three-named Texas songwriters that’s up to over, like 160 or something … and sometimes you listen to them and they’re singing about each other now in their songs. It’s like they’re running out of subject matter or something. Go see the world!
I think that’s what me and Slaid and Eliza all like about the Woody shows: Woody was just so edgy and stood out. And I think there’s kind of a conservative slant on some of that Texas music scene, and it’s like — this doesn’t represent all of us. We’re not all toting the party line down there. We’re out talking about the human condition and what’s going on in the whole world in a bigger sense. And I think if more of those artists really traveled and just saw some other cultures and what’s going on, they’d see that we’re all just one big world, c’mon, quit being so isolated.
So how do you really feel, Jimmy?
[Laughs] You know, I get on my soapbox about it sometimes, because I think that all those musicians are so talented, but they should maybe expand their record collection a little bit. Buy some Dylan records! Buy some Leonard Cohen! And that’s coming from me, and I was born in Texas and I live in Texas and I love Texas. And I have songs about Texas, too. But it’s a shame when people in other cities hear about Texas music and get the impression that it’s all about whiskey and cactus plants and partying, because they kind of miss the boat and maybe don’t get to hear about some of the really fine songwriters, like James McMurtry and Michael Fracasso. And really, in the broader sense, the same thing goes for the Americana Music Association. They’ve become so Nashville country oriented. I mean, Americana music should be more than just this kind of “alt-country” thing; it should be guys like Taj Mahal and Charlie Parker, too.
Speaking of narrow labels … You’ve always been considered as much of an Oklahoma artist as a Texas artist.
I think it’s just because I grew up there during my high school years, and I do have an appreciation for that state that goes beyond any kind of football rivalry thing. Because musically — a lot of Texas music is Oklahoma music. Alvin Crow is an Oklahoman. Kelly Willis is from Oklahoma. Tom Russell, Cross Canadian Ragweed … Roger Miller grew up in Oklahoma. There’s even Okies in [Bob Schneider’s band] the Scabs. I really think the two states are pretty much one state in a lot of ways.
Hence the name of your last record, Texoma.
Yeah. I mean, it’s funny that a little state with a smaller population than, say, the Dallas metroplex, has produced probably more of the really great music in this country than any other state. I mean, everybody from Woody Guthrie to Chet Baker to J.J. Cale and Wanda Jackson and Eddie Cochran. And let’s think about it in terms of commercial country: between Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McIntire, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, probably the bulk of records sold in Nashville were made by Okies. And Leon Russell! There’s just a certain energy in Oklahoma that’s different than other places. It’s a great place to go and kind of learn how to make music.
When you started out there playing, was your music a little more on the straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll side?
I think a little bit. But what was so cool about Stillwater, Oklahoma, which is a college town — it’s like the state’s version of San Marcos, basically — was that you’ve got so many people who come from different places. People who go to college with different record collections, or you meet other musicians who maybe moved from Texas who knew more about the Butch Hancock and Joe Ely thing. So I started really getting more into the Texas singer-songwriter thing, which back then wasn’t a bunch of drunk, party-anthem music.
When you came back to Texas — when you moved to Austin in ’87 — things started rolling pretty quickly for you, didn’t they?
Yeah. That was a good heyday for Austin music. That was when a lot of us started showing up there. You know how we all complain about how Austin’s gotten too big, too expensive, but in a way, I guess the people 20 years from now will be saying the same thing, like your parents always complaining about your music. But I think Austin definitely has changed — I mean it was once more of a college city, and probably easier for people to live downtown and have little cheap apartments and open mics, things like that. There was a lot of artists, me included, that came out of that scene and are still going today, all over the country.
A lot of that scene kind of buzzed around that Chicago House, where you led a songwriters’ circle, right?
Yeah. Chicago House was an amazing, seminal place for a lot of great songwriters who went on to get major record deals. Some of them have come and gone and I don’t even know where they are, but at one time that Chicago House had all that great music coming out of it. It was down on Trinity Street, right off Sixth Street. That was when Sixth Street was a little tamer, too.
Tell me about your first record, Austin Skyline. I played that again the other day and was struck by what a really great debut that was … even though it’s a live album. Does it hold up for you, too? Were you really proud of it when it first came out?
Oh yeah. Because that thing came about out of this process where I was going to do a major-label record, and … well, I won’t even go into the details or name any names, but it fell through, and the person at the major label said, “You’re never going to do anything without our help.” So I put out that Austin Skyline record, which I recorded on a shoestring, and it actually was the top-selling record in Austin that year. If you check the Waterloo sales charts from the time, I think it was the best selling Texas record in their store that year.
So it was like the Bob Schneider’s Lonelyland of its day?
Yeah. It really did a lot of good for me. And it still sells like hotcakes on the road to this day. I actually don’t have any copies with me right now, and people are always asking for it.
I bet every review that record ever got — just like every other review you’ve ever had, good or bad — mentions your voice first and foremost. Do you ever get tired of reading about your voice?
No, no. I’m glad people appreciate it. I mean, sometimes I get tired of hearing my own voice. But I definitely have a style that’s very distinctive, and I learned that from listening to people like Dylan and Van Morrison and Frank Sinatra. I think Dylan’s one of the greatest singers in the world. People always look at me like I’m crazy when I say that, but man, his phrasing is amazing … just like Sinatra’s.
Did you take any kind of voice lessons?
No. I never really took music lessons, never went to college. I just discovered music and decided that’s what I was going to do. You know, fully prepared that if I had to also work at a gas station, that would be OK. But I really didn’t want to try to be a musician and also work on an engineering degree to have something to fall back on, as they say.
So you kinda took a gamble there.
Yeah, but it’s really worked out well for me. I think no matter what you do, you just have to stick to what you really love, and usually, even if you don’t really have a talent at first, you slowly can develop it, or find some facet of that talent that you can use to make a living and be happy.
The other night at one of my shows, I said, “I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be great.” And I think really that’s what’s happened with a lot of Americana artists; they couldn’t care less about being famous —they’re more worried about being great. And they are. I think a lot of true musicians have discovered that this is the real world of music — the music world that honors people like Woody Guthrie, who traveled with nothing but a guitar and went playing from home to home. And that’s what we still do: we play houses, we play churches, we play performance arts centers and we play bars. And what’s really cool is when I hear people say, “You know what Jimmy? Guys like James McMurtry are kinda famous … but you’re kind of obscure, too.” And I always say, “That’s the great thing about this kind of music — obscurity never goes out of style!” Because people that listen to James McMurtry or Eliza Gilkyson or Slaid, they’re with them to the end — not just until they get out of college and they stop going on the ski-trips or spring break or whatever. These people are with the artist until death. So it’s like we’re all part of a family of music that’s so much more rewarding than any kind of superstar fame would ever give you. And there’s a great feeling of power in that comraderie, like, “We’re not buying the party line. We don’t listen to Clear Channel, because we know where the real music is, and we’ve got it.”
Speaking of family and comraderie … this is a bit of a leap, but years ago Ray Wylie Hubbard told me in an interview that you picked on him once for taking his little portable cappuccino maker with him on the road. That’s not very nice.
[Laughs] Yeah, right!
So do you have anything like that you have to have with you on the road?
No. I don’t even carry a laptop or anything. But we have band road rules — like we never eat at any restaurant that has an “n” and the apostrophe, you know, like, Chicken’ N’ Such. Or we don’t eat at any restaurants that that little apostrophe “Lil’,” like “Lil’ Mexico.” We have quirky rules like that that keep things fun. People are always surprised when they find out we drove to a gig, instead of flying, but we enjoy it. And it’s actually gotten easier to travel these days; like our van, we’ve got two DVD players in it, and power ports for laptops, if you want them.
Just like Woody used to travel.
Yeah, you know … hopping freight trains! But we do love to get back on the blue highways, the two-lane highways, things like that. We drove through the Delta on our way to a gig in Memphis the other day, just to soak up the vibe of Robert Johnson and stuff. That’s the whole thing with America … it’s still out there if you look for it, but you better hurry. Because everything feels like a Wal-Mart waiting to happen, like James McMurtry says in that song of his. But … one thing that’s kinda good about all that is, you don’t have to bring your own cappuccino machine with you anymore: you can actually get a good cappuccino pretty much everywhere. [Laughs]
Can’t argue with that. One last question, to settle that “Jimmy LaFave: Texan or Oklahoman?” debate once and for all. Who do you root for in the Red River Shoot Out — UT or OU?
Well, because I grew up in Stillwater, I’m an Oklahoma State Cowboy all the way. So I never root for OU in anything!