By D.C. Bloom

(Oct/Nov 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 5)

Jimmy LaFave strolls into Threadgill’s looking like any one of the thousands of hipster dads in Austin. With his 11-year-old son, Jackson, in tow — whom he proudly introduces by pointing out that he had just consumed an entire 193-page book picked up earlier that day — LaFave is heartily welcomed at the South Austin establishment where he frequently performs and where the meatloaf on your plate is as delectable  as the music in the air.

Photo by Rodney Bursiel

Photo by Rodney Bursiel

Although he’s a native Texan from the small town of Willis Point and has been a fixture on the Austin music scene since arriving in 1986, LaFave has always seemed to keep one dusty boot north of the border in Oklahoma, where he spent his high school years in Stillwater and made his first independent recordings. Mistaking LaFave for a natural-born Okie has only increased of late as he’s taken a leading role in helping the nation and world mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the most famous Oklahoman of them all — Woody Guthrie. His Guthrie-related projects have included serving on the advisory board of the 15th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (aka WoodyFest, which marked its 15th year July 11-15 in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Okla.), and touring with a rotating lineup of fellow Woody-loving troubadours as part of his “Walking Woody’s Road” show, a sequel of sorts to last decade’s long-running “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” production.

The Guthrie centennial year began with a bang for LaFave — literally. While driving home from a gig in Port Aransas, his SUV was slammed from the rear by a speeding driver, causing it to somersault twice before coming to a rest upside-down on I-37. You know you’ve been in a bad accident when they have to call in the Jaws of Life to pry you out. LaFave walked away relatively unscathed, though, and not wanting to worry his fans, kept news of the mishap on the down-low. Just as he had a year earlier when he suffered a mild stroke. This is one tough Texoman hombre.

With the release of Depending on the Distance, his 10th album since 1992’s Austin Skyline and second on Music Road Records, the label he started with two business partners, LaFave adds another jewel to a discography that has continually shown him to be not only a gifted songwriter in his own right, but a master interpreter of Bob Dylan tunes. Along with eight new originals and two other intriguing covers (by Bruce Springsteen and John Waite), Distance adds three more Dylan nuggets to LaFave’s repertoire (Trail, his 1999 double-CD, still holds the record though with its whopping dozen Dylan covers). Coincidentally, early in his career, LaFave also worked with fellow Texan Bob Johnston, who produced Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Nashville Skyline. 

Unfortunately, the Johnston-produced LaFave tracks — which featured Double Trouble’s Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton recording for the first time after Stevie Ray Vaughn’s death — have never seen the light of day, and LaFave doesn’t even know if the masters still exist. He casually chalks it up to a bad record deal signed back before he got a little more wizened up on such matters. It’s a perspective that comes with distance.

That beret of yours isn’t the only hat you’re wearing these days. How do you manage juggling so many projects and jobs at once — from all the Woody stuff to running a record label to keeping up with your own career, recording and touring?

I have a joke that the motto of this little label I started — and it’s really not a label, it’s more a collective of artists — “Bite off more than you can chew, and start chewing.” The Woody Guthrie centennial this year is taking up so much time, but it’s been a pretty rewarding deal. This October we’re doing a big thing at the Kennedy Center with folks like Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, and Ramblin’ Jack. I’ve been treated really great by Woody’s daughter, Nora, ever since I met her back in the ’90s doing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show. She kind of wanted somebody from Woody’s homeland of Oklahoma and I kind of grew up there. They pretty much consider me a member of the family at this point and they call on me to go do things.

You were a part of the “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” touring Guthrie tribute for a number of years, and this year you put together a new one, “Walking Woody’s Road.” Both productions have featured a mixture of Woody’s writings and music.  Why does that format work so well?

A lot of people at these tribute shows — you might get somebody like Jackson Browne or Emmylou Harris, and they kind of learn one Woody song. I’ve tried to take it a step farther and the show has a lot of narration. I’m constantly looking up things he said and have almost become a little too much of a scholar about it, so it’s easy for me to put a show together. I can kind of tie different people together if they only know one song, like “Pastures of Plenty.” I know the background; I know what to read about that.

That scholarly understanding of the life and times of Woody should come in handy as you take your turn at bringing his long-ago lyrics and journal entries to new life.

Yeah, Nora’s given me about 20 songs and I’m trying to get them done by the end of the year … speaking of biting off more than you can chew. She had me go through and choose my own songs, so I tried to pick ones that I kind of related to. Some are pretty much put-together songs, others are just ideas that she says I can flesh out. She’s sent them out to a lot of people now, so I listen to those records. She kind of prefers that you don’t try to make it sound old-timey, but put your own twist on it. She’ll dole out songs and then put ’em back if nothing comes of it. I looked through the song sheet and she put back one that she had given to George Carlin.

What are your favorite new Woody songs that others have done?

That version of “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key” that Billy Bragg did has kind of become an instant classic, so I’d like to try to get something that good. We just did “California Stars” this past weekend with Sarah Lee Guthrie in Edmonton. That’s a nice little melody. It’s real simple; just three chords, great sing-a-long. That’s a good one. Jonatha Brooke’s put a whole record out and she’s got some good interpretations. So I’m trying to take my time to make some cool melodies. We’ll see what happens.

What do you think Woody would make of the state of politics today?

He really was a populist. He had that thing he said at the Lincoln Center once: “Left-wing, right-wing, chicken wing.” I read a piece in my show where he says this thing about the battle lines getting clearer between open minds and closed minds and says that the Democrats and the old dead-head Republicans should get out of our way. And then he said “So fight to do all you can to get our good old U.S.A. out of the hands of these old dead people that owns us.” He had a pretty good perspective on things.

And that perspective’s still pretty much spot-on today, 50 years later.

Yeah, that’s the amazing thing. My show opens with another quote from him where he says “Music is the language of the mind that travels, that carries the key to the laws of time and space. There is nothing in nature that’s not music; since creation, the people and music have been the song.” It’s so dead-on. You can go back to the ’40s and his era and you wouldn’t find Hank Williams saying something like that. Woody was very fascinated with Einstein in his life, too. It’s just amazing that he was that perceptive. He was just a genius. It was almost like he was channeling knowledge from another place. There’s another piece I read where he talks about how love moves and balances every ray in the universe, causes peace and harmony to whirl a new whole universe on the inside of every atom, moves and balances all the other planets and the uncounted blue jillions. It’s like, “Woo!” This guy wasn’t just some hobo goin’ down the road now … The guy really seemed-like he was tuned in to some other frequency. Maybe every 15-millionth human being that is born has some kind of weird other-brain, genetic thing where they tap into a star stream or something? It’s almost like that.

But he cloaked it in a real country language. I was talking to Nora and she said her family tried to keep Woody’s image as the folk singer guy, hanging out with Pete Seeger in the Village, but she goes, “Jimmy, he was over on the east side of Manhattan hanging out with Bertolt Brecht and Langston Hughes.” When she was in town I took her by the John Henry Faulk statue and she said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got a bunch of letters between my dad and John Henry Faulk.” I’ve never seen any iconic artist that had the amount of genius, interests or output that this guy had. And he inspired so many musicians. At a seminar this weekend I learned from a bluegrass scholar that Bill Monroe was a big fan of Woody’s — he read Bound for Glory and made all kinds of notes in the margins. That guy really touched a lot of people. Even Jimi Hendrix carried Woody lyrics in his wallet.

It must be so rewarding, then, to be out there helping people see that Woody is a lot more than just “This Land is Your Land” and introducing him to a new generation of fans.

With this renaissance, he’s more popular than ever. Nora gave those lyrics to “Shipping Out to Boston” to the Dropkick Murphys, and I know Stoney LaRue, who’s from Oklahoma, uses that sometimes in opening his gigs. I told him that was Woody. But the thing with the Dropkick Murphys, they take this and kind of as a lark put some music to it and they end up playing it during the seventh inning of the World Series when Boston won it. That Woody song became kind of their theme song.

They found a new novel just this year that Woody wrote, The House of Earth. It’s all about sustainable housing and living in adobes. When he was in the panhandle he got interested in adobe houses and almost quit music to tell all the farmers to get out of their wood-framed houses in the Dust Bowl and live in these adobe earth homes. Johnny Depp just bought the movie rights to it.

So the guy’s finally getting his due and I’m honored to be a part of it. When we started the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah 15 years ago, they didn’t even want us to come. They thought we were like Woodstock invading their little town. They love us now, though. And they have a statue of Woody on Main Street now. His only living sister, Mary Jo, is in her 90s and she’s gotten to see the governor almost practically apologize — they’ve put his painting in the rotunda of the state capital. And “Oklahoma Hills” is the state song. But back in the ’60s she had to hear things like, “Your brother’s a no-good communist.” She’s a real spiritual, church-going person who has long stood up for her brother. So it’s just great that she can see after all these years that they’re building a museum to her brother in Tulsa now.

Let’s talk about your latest release, Depending on the Distance. Where’s that title come from?

Well, you know, things happen in your life and depending on the distance, you might have a different perspective. Like if you’d just got divorced, you might be angry at the person, but you get some distance between it and 10 years later you run into each other and you laugh about it. Same thing with health issues. It may have been pretty serious at the time, but a few years later you look back and say, “Okay, I beat that.” So it’s just kind of a term for having perspective on things happening in your life. Distance seems to make a lot of difference to me. You forget about grudges after a while … It’s like getting too close to a painting. But then when you back away you go, “Oh, I see what it all means.” That’s kind of where the title came from.

You’ve frequently covered Dylan on your recordings, but Depending on the Distance finds you doing a Springsteen song for the first time — and a recent one, too. How’d that decision come about?

That Springsteen thing was kind of by accident. Dave Marsh, who hosts the Springsteen channel on Sirrius, wanted me to do the show and he had that bootleg recording of when I did “Oklahoma Hills” with Bruce in Dallas. He said, “You know, there’s this song called ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ that he’s never put on a record. You should do something with it.” This was long before Springsteen put it on his latest record. So I did my little version for Marsh. And I noticed that what Bruce did on the one he just came out with [on Wrecking Ball] was also put a mandolin on it. It’s weird how those serendipitous things happen. So when it came time to put this record out, I was going through some things and I played it and decided to put it on ’cuz the album needed another upbeat, up-tempo track. Unbeknowst to me last week, Dave Marsh was doing his show on Sirrius and he played it because somebody had sent him a copy. He said he’d played it for Bruce and Bruce really liked it, so I got a lot of emails last week from people asking where they could get my version. Those Springsteen fans are good to have.

You also cover John Waite’s “Missing You.” What drew you to that song?

I just always kind of dug that song. It’s one of the few songs of that era — the ’80s — that I really like. I was in a Home Depot one time and there was a version of that song by Brooks and Dunn playing, and it is the worst. I don’t really know that much about Brooks and Dunn other than one of ’em’s from Oklahoma. I’m sure they’re pretty okay guys, but that version was just the most countrified thing. And I thought, “Man, there’s gotta be a better cover version of that.” Then I started looking into it, I figured out there’s been a lot of covers of it. Alison Krauss’ is okay — I think she actually did it as a duet with John Waite. But I just figured I’d give it a try. I had actually played it at gigs a few times and I kind of listen to my fans and they go, “Hey, is this gonna be on your new record?” And I think, I’ll just go with it, ya know?

Then, of course, there are your requisite Dylan covers. His “Red River Shore” seems like a natural for a fella from Texhoma. 

(Laughs) Yeah, right? I just dig that song. It’s about nine minutes long. We did a gig here at Threadgill’s and I had Cindy Cashdollar play with me and then it occurred to me that she played on the original Dylan version of “Red River Shore.” I said, “Wait, you know this song. You played on it.” She really didn’t remember, though, cuz she said the sessions are so bizarre. And it’s just on that bootleg record [The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs — Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006], so a lot of people have never heard it. I Googled it and saw there weren’t that many versions of “Red River Shore.” So I decided to put it on there. I also cover “I’ll Remember You,” which I have done at a lot of memorial services. That’s another one that people kept saying, “Will you put that on a record?” And “Tomorow’s Such a Long Time” is another song I’ve done for a long time. Such a beautiful song.

Dylan supposedly said that Elvis recording “Tomorrow’s Such a Long Time” was the highlight of his career.

Yeah, I can see that — to have Elvis do one of your songs.

Have you ever heard what Dylan thinks of your covers?

I’ve never met him. I was over at the Palmer Auditorium one night and he was backstage in a room about this size, but I never went over to talk to him. I just remember he tried to leave and it was kind of like that George Bush thing where he’s trying to leave that press conference in China and the door’s locked and he can’t get out. But Dylan kind of walked into a closet. He just so wanted to get out of that room. They say you should never really meet your heroes and I’ve heard all these bizarre stories about him. So it’s just better. But through his camp, I’ve heard that he likes my versions.

Steve Earle famously stated that he’d stand on Dylan’s coffee table and tell him that Townes Van Zandt was a far better songwriter than he (Dylan) was. I’m assuming you’d say the opposite.

(Laughs) Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s Dylan, hands down. I think most people would say that. Of course, the only songwriter that Dylan says showed him the way was Woody. Dylan will be in the history books eons from now. So I’ve always been a big fan. And still am. He’s got a new one coming out, you know. (Tempest, released Sept. 11.)

You seem to take the “singer” half of your “singer-songwriter” job description very seriously, and focus just as much on your vocal abilities and covering songs you like and artists you admire as you do writing your own stuff.

I just enjoy singing. People who have been my idols are great singers. People like Van Morrison or Sinatra. Even Dylan. I think Dylan’s a master at phrasing. People overlook his vocal skills. I also enjoy reinterpreting. I’d rather reinterpret a Dylan song, or a Butch Hancock or a Townes song. There are kids who hear me at Gruene Hall and come up and will say that they really liked a certain song I did and I’ll tell ’em, “That was a Dylan song.” They need to know. They’ll say, “Wow, I never liked his music.” I like being able to do that too, introducing people to things they should know.

Who are some of the newer artists you like these days?

We actually recorded a record of John Fullbright for Music Road, but it didn’t get released. We couldn’t get it worked out with his manager. But it’s in the can and I personally think it’s a lot better than the one he put out that is getting rave reviews. Sonically it sounds better and we brought in some players like Brandon Temple, John Blondell — I had some great A-team Austin players. And there’s a lot of different songs than the ones on his new record. But the ones that are the same, I would go with the ones we did.

I see guys all the time I like. Anthony da Costa’s another one. He was playing with Sam (Baker) and I said, “Hey, let’s do a record,” and he said, “Yeah, I wanna talk to you about doing that.” And the next thing I know he’s on Conan O’Brien. Same thing with the Milk Carton Kids — I’d heard them and thought they were great and then the next thing I know they’re already opening for someone really big. Those talented kids now are moving quick. Fullbright’s doing, I guess, pretty good; I see his name all over in the press. I don’t know if he’s moving any CDs though, because, like, that’s the big mystery — you gotta actually move CDs.

That’s the big challenge for everyone in the music industry today, for established artists like you and people just coming onto the scene. Is it largely a matter of technology and changing music consuming habits?

This new generation, it doesn’t occur to them to pay for music. It’s a demographic thing. But I’ve got so many fans who say, “No, I want to buy a physical CD.” At Music Road we talked about not printing CDs and just doing download cards, and I said, “Well, we could do that, but I’m going to a festival this weekend and I know there will be fans there that want to buy my physical CD. So why not sell them?” It’s like a hamburger stand — why not set one up at a festival? You can tell me CDs are dinosaurs and no one wants them, but there are people who still do want the physical thing, so why not take a 100 copies and sell them? Until they quit buying them I will refuse to quit making them. There’s a part of our crowd that just wants that. I download songs all the time on my iPad, but I’ll buy choice CDs, like Dylan or Butch Hancock. It’s down to a more selective lot whose physical CD I’ll buy. And it’s kind of that way with me [for my fans]. I have a certain fan base that wants my physical CD, so I’m not going to tell them to go to my website and download the music and the artwork and stuff. They want something they can have signed or frame if they want to.

So it’s a challenging time not only to be an artist trying to sell product, but to be a label trying to figure out what’s the best way to reach the market.

We started Music Road Records five years ago, when everything was changing. We’re not really in the market of trying to break new acts. So it’s good to have people who have a solid fan base, like Slaid Cleaves or Kevin Welch, and it kind of makes economic sense to help ’em out. But it’s not like a real record label. There are a lot of friends who want to go with us, but they’re better off doing it themselves. If they go with us, they’ll have to pay us back. It’s hard to compete with Kickstarter, too, being a small label. It’s like, “What can we do for you when you can go online and raise $20,000 or $35,000 from fans that you don’t have to pay back?” So it’s kind of a Catch-22 deal right now. And the Americana thing is kind of a dead end these days. It’s almost like the bands outnumber the crowds in that particular genre. I know so many people that have gotten kind of high on the Americana charts and it doesn’t mean you’re selling a lot of records. The only way to make a living doing this is to get out there and play. Butch Hancock has this great quote. He says, “Jimmy, we sell dozens of records to discriminating listeners in small pockets of good taste.”