By Richard Skanse
The Texas music community awoke Thursday morning to the terrible news that one of its brightest young stars, singer-songwriter Kylie Rae Harris, had died in a three-car accident Wednesday evening in Taos, New Mexico. A 16-year-old local high school student driving one of the other two cars, Maria Elena Cruz, was also killed in the collision.
Harris, who was 30 — and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter — was in Taos for Michael Hearne’s 17th annual Big Barn Dance festival. She had been scheduled to perform Thursday afternoon in a song swap with fellow Texas artist Kelley Mickwee. According to festival organizer Sarah Hearne Naftis, speaking to Taos News, it would have been Harris’ first time performing at the event with her own name on the bill, after years of being invited onstage by other artists to sit in. “She was a huge part of the Big Barn Dance family,” said Naftis.
She was a pretty big — and much beloved — part of the Texas music family, too, going all the way back to her early teens growing up in the Dallas suburb of Wylie when she began not just writing songs but singing them in public. “Your soulful voice and Texas beauty was always jaw-dropping, even when we were teenagers at the Larry Joe Taylor festival,” wrote Harris’ friend and peer Maren Morris on Instagram Thursday afternoon. Harris went on to release her debut album, All the Right Reasons, at age 21, and a year later was selected as one of the featured artists followed throughout the syndicated TV documentary series Troubadour, TX.
The TV show didn’t make Harris a household-name level national (or Nashville) country star, but it did help boost her Texas profile leading up to the release of her 2013 EP, Taking It Back. So too did the several years she spent performing both onstage and on record (singing harmonies) with fellow Troubadour, TX alum Zane Williams. In a 2013 profile on Harris in the Dallas Observer, Williams told writer Kelly Dearmore that his friend sang “like an angel covered in the dust and dirt of the real world. Soulful, passionate and wise beyond her years, her songs tend toward melancholy. But her smile is as bright as they come.”
In 2014, Harris was named “Female Vocalist of the Year” at the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards. By that point in her young life, though, music was no longer her main — let alone only — passion and priority. She was the new mother of a baby girl, Corbie, who Harris would raise on her own after separating from the father. She continued to perform, tour, and guest on other artists’ albums, though, and last summer even launched her own vintage and “boho” fashion boutique/brand, Corbie + Co. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2018 that she finally made it back into a studio to record her follow-up to Taking It Back. The result, another six-song EP, simply titled Kylie Rae Harris, was released this March.
That that EP, arguably the best document yet of her still burgeoning and very promising career, would prove to be Harris’ swan song was sad enough. Even sadder, though, is the devastatingly bittersweet sting of the closing track, “Twenty Years from Now.” Co-written with fellow Dallas-area native Jon Randall, the song is a plaintive wish in the spirit of Kevin Welch’s “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young.” It opens with Harris tucking her daughter to sleep in the backseat of her car, and unfolds over a long, hard drive as she reflects upon her past and wishes with all her heart for enough tomorrows to make it all right. “Twenty years from now, my prayer is that somehow / you’ll forgive all my mistakes and be proud of the choice I made / God I hope I’m still around, twenty years from now.”
As a tragic consequence of another long, hard drive, this time on New Mexico State Road 522 en route to see and sing with her friends at what was supposed to be a beautiful weekend (as she enthused on social media the day before, “Magical times with wonderful people await!”), Harris won’t get those years. But in the years she did have, “magical times” abounded. Just this past summer alone, on at least two separate occasions (as documented with video on her’ own Instagram account and in blogger Brad Beheler’s tribute on Galleywinter), Harris was blessed with the opportunity to share a duet with her daughter, singing Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.” And as was made overwhelming clear through the flood of social media tributes to Harris in the immediate wake of her untimely death, a whole lot of pretty cool grown-ups were always happy to sing with her, too. As recounted in one of her earliest bios, back in her own childhood Harris and her whole family would often sing along to the music of Texas songwriter Radney Foster on car trips. The very same Radney Foster who on Thursday affectionately called Harris “my background vocalist, my band mate at times, hired gun in the studio, and a hell of good young songwriter.” But first and foremost, he called her “my friend.”
“When she sang, joy and soul ached out,” Foster recounted on Twitter. “She was full of life and love. Words are hard to come by, tears are not. Godspeed, Kylie Rae.”