JP Harris & the Tough Choices,
I'll Keep Calling
(Cow Island, 2012)

It is no news that mainstream "country" music has little to do with the country music that many of us grew up with, which was a tough-edged genre that took root in the 1940s in the honkytonks of the Southwestern oil towns. You can mention George Strait and Alan Jackson as two who still command airplay and significant fan bases, but beyond those durable names nobody consistently represents the honkytonk sound that once defined country, or comes even close to it.

Traditional country survives in mostly local musical cultures, their audiences consisting both of aging folks who recall George Jones and Merle Haggard and of twenty-somethings drawn into the Americana-music movement. In fact, generally speaking, sounds like those practiced by JP Harris & the Tough Choices are heard only on Americana stations, most of them Internet- or satellite-based. Beyond that, if you want to hear them, you have to see the acts live or buy their CDs.

Bill Hunt's always dependable Cow Island label, based in Massachusetts, boasts a small number of first-rate bands, nearly all of which focus on the "billy" side of rockabilly. If JP Harris and friends don't entirely eschew rockabilly (e.g., "Shake It") on their debut album I'll Keep Calling, mostly they're trafficking in the kind of mid-century honkytonk (including trademark swing rhythms and shuffle beats) that once upon a time you could hear on any jukebox in any white working-class joint you strolled into in search of a beer. Jukeboxes have never sounded so good as they did then, and if that dates me, I am dated.

Not, I need add, that Harris is literally revisiting the good ol' good ones. The album's dozen cuts are all Harris originals, yet all so firmly entrenched in the tradition that you might think they hailed from half a century ago. This is not hyphenated country. It's not country-rock, country-folk or country-pop. Nor is any of it ironic or mocking in the manner of early hippie honkytonk revivalists like Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen or their acolytes such as Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks. Harris's approach is refreshingly straight-ahead, the sort of thing engendered by pure passion for a strain of music that wore its broken heart on its tear-stained sleeve and its blue collar proudly around its red neck. It allows for a convincing resurrection of Hank Williams soul in "The Day You Put Me Out" and the otherwise-neglected genre of truck-drivin' song ("Gear Jammin' Daddy," possibly inspired by Bobby Braddock's minor 1967 hit "Gear Bustin' Sort of a Feller").

If, as Harris promises, I'll Keep Calling, those of you who love true and unapologetic country music will be well advised to pick up the phone. The news Harris brings is good: you can still get it just the way you like it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 August 2012

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