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On The String: The Old-Time Ballad Of J.P. Harris

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Michelangelo Merisi, the Baroque-era painter known as Caravaggio, was a self-absorbed jerk, a brawler who killed at least one guy and an artist of stunning gifts who depicted the world with gory realism. He’s the one with all the heads separated from or being violently hacked off their owners. So when J.P. Harris, East Nashville’s renaissance man of roots music, started describing his vision for his new album cover to photographer Libby Danforth and she said “You want a Caravaggio,” he said, “Oh my god, you know what I’m getting at!”

The resulting cover photo is dramatic and forbidding enough to impel some to immediately buy the album without knowing what’s on it and others to run away. Harris is at the center, in all his hairy, tattooed, glowering glory, propping up a big spike hammer as if it was a walking cane. Behind him is a spread of opulent decadence with luminous persimmons, melons and grapes; wine bottles; and a pomegranate stabbed with a bloody wooden dagger. There’s even a head, not of J.P.’s thank heaven but that of a wild boar (taxidermy) with an apple in its mouth. Shot to look for all the world like an oil painting, it’s a cover that took commitment, courage and cleverness (for there are numerous visual references to the songs within). But this is the J.P. Harris way.

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The 17th century is also the rough origin point for some of the songs on the new Harris album Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man. The artist, well-regarded for his electric honky tonk sound and vivid songwriting, found his country music footing many years ago in the old-time community. Seduced by old cassette tapes he traded around when he was rambling around the country as a teenager, he taught himself the clawhammer banjo and immersed himself in the scene at the nation’s old-time festivals, like Clifftop and Galax. Well before he had any idea he’d be a recording artist, traditional music became his guiding light. In his liner notes, Harris writes about being seduced by its qualities, “something more arcane, less refined, and somewhat hypnotic” than bluegrass. He’s toured small venues playing this style but never made an album in the genre.

“I made a list of about 25 different (songs) that did had just stayed with me over the years,” Harris says. “I wanted to pick tunes that I intuitively knew to my core and would know until the day I die. I can't forget them. They're so buried in my brain. But also, there is a long history of preservation in old time music. There are all these amazing tunes that we really don’t want to lose. Real deep old-time heads will know a lot of these songs, but there are a lot (that) my fans won’t. And I wanted to just sort of expose people to some stuff they maybe hadn't heard before.”

If DYMNRM was the first old-time album somebody had ever listened to, I’d say a couple of things to them by way of orientation. First, while the instrumentation, an old nylon stringed banjo played clawhammer style and fiddle from partner (and record producer) Chance McCoy on most tracks is integral to the genre, the feeling achieved here is slower and more stately than the rollicking dance-ready quality you’ll often hear in old-time. Harris went for a mood that’s more atmospheric and more focused on lyrics, sung in his hearty bass/baritone.

That’s the other point, that the songs are exemplars of ballads with a very long, mostly Anglo-Saxon lineage. Album opener “House Carpenter” has its origins in 17th century Scotland and also goes by the titles “The Daemon Lover” and “James Harris.” It’s been recorded by Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Joan Baez and dozens of other folk singers. “Country Blues,” a song famously from the repertoire of Dock Boggs, has been a favorite among bluegrassers in the past decade or more. Some of these songs like “Mole In The Ground” can be found on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which helped spark the folk revival of the 1950s. And don’t miss “Last Chance,” a solo banjo instrumental paced and plunked to emphasize the West African origins of the banjo.

In Episode 178 of The String, J.P. Harris, from his self-renovated home in East Nashville, talks about his years train-hopping and seeking adventure, his introduction to banjo playing, the origins of his trade in historic carpentry and a wild story about building the studio on which he and McCoy made the album. As I say in the piece, Harris might be the most interesting man in roots music. I just wish we had a few more hours for his endless stories.

JP Harris feat. Chance McCoy - Mole In The Ground

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.