News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: JP Harris & The Tough Choices
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
JP Harris spent the holidays in rural Louisiana, wrapping up a carpentry job 15 miles outside of Angola Prison.
It wasn’t a glamorous New Year’s by any means, but he needed the money to help bankroll his next tour. Traveling with a multi-piece country band gets expensive, and Harris—a former nomad who spent his early 20s herding sheep, picking apples and scrapping sheet metal for cash—knows how to make a buck or two with his hands.
For the past four years, every last cent has gone into his music. Harris is the leader of JP Harris & The Tough Choices, a group of roving ruffians who play old-school honky–tonk songs about heartache and hangovers. Armed with the bushy beard of a Civil War general and the booming baritone of someone twice his age, he commands a larger-than-life presence onstage.
“I think people romanticize the idea of the rambling country singer and his band, playing roadhouse to roadhouse,” Harris explained. “This isn’t a group of kids who got out of music school, received a van as a graduation present, went on tour and then felt totally wiped out after a week. People see us pulling into the parking lot in a smoking van, with dents all over it and beer bottles falling out of the back, and they’re seeing something they thought only existed in movies.”
He added, “Combine that with the experiences I’ve had—the various lives I’ve led—and it inadvertently creates a small urban legend around the band.”
Harris’ teenage years and early adulthood sound like something out of a Jack Kerouac novel, full of hitchhiked car rides across the Southwest and wild evenings spent in the desert. Before moving to Nashville two years ago, he spent a decade without electricity or running water, living on a Navajo reservation one minute and in a Vermont hunting camp the next.
It’s a unique background, one that sets Harris apart from pretty much every other modern-day country singer. In a genre filled with multi-millionaires who drive nice cars and live in large houses, Harris is just like the rest of us: blue-collar and broke, with the need to make friends with the people who watch his shows. Once the final note is played, he usually climbs offstage and walks into the crowd, eager to swap stories and share drinks with 100 of his newest buddies.
“There are small moments when you feel like a rock star,” he admitted. “You’ll play a music festival where there’s someone with a golf cart to drive you around, and you’re like, ‘Yes! I’ve got my sunglasses on at 6 p.m., drinking a beer in a golf cart while someone else drives it.’
“But country music is meant to be people’s music, and it’s more about the personal connections you make.
“Having a gig fall through and playing a backyard party instead, where you spend the night hanging out with cool people and then crash on their couch—that’s what makes this thing real,” he said. “Fame is disgusting once it becomes exclusive, because people are placed on a pedestal, and the whole point is to make them seem unattainable which is counterintuitive to me. Country music stems out of bluegrass, old-time mountain music, barn dances and square dances and all those other events that would bring a community together, just to give people an excuse to kick their heels up and forget their troubles. If I bring that kind of music to a modern-day audience and leave out the community mentality, then I’m going against the whole point of the music that I play.”
What: JP Harris & The Tough Choices
When: Thursday, Jan. 31, at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Hill Country BBQ, 410 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Andrew Leahey spent his early 20s herding apples and picking sheep.