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Finally Friday’s Jaimee Harris On Leaving, Losing And Loving

Roots/country songwriters are often students of the art form, but Jaimee Harris is hard core. From her Emmylou Harris epiphany at age five through a girlhood in Waco obsessed with the master Texas songsmiths to her active fandom of today’s scene, she’ll school ya, because she’s schooled herself. Meanwhile, she’s worked her way into some refined company as an artist in her own right, and she’s brimming over with beliefs, insights and aspirations, as you’ll see in the conversation we had this week.

Harris, Nashville based since 2018, has just released her celebrated sophomore album called Boomerang Town, and she’s joining WMOT this week as part of our Finally Friday bill at 3rd & Lindsley, along with power soul couple the War & Treaty and Southern boogie band the Natchez Tracers. With its character-rich landscape and candor about choices, family and fate, Boomerang Town is lyrically moving and beautifully sung. I spoke with Jaimee by Zoom on Tuesday on a brief stopover during a busy winter of touring. She spoke from the home she shares with her partner of five years, the legendary songwriter Mary Gauthier.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Craig: Boomerang Town is getting rave reviews. Congratulations.

Jaimee: Yeah, it's really exciting. I mean, it's kind of a complicated thing. Because you know, this outside validation, like, how much do I internalize that? And how much do I just keep my head down and just write the next song and just do the best work I can? But it has been exciting to have people respond positively to the cycle of songs, because I'm really proud of them.

It’s largely about your hometown, so let’s go there. You got turned on to songwriting at an improbably young age.

Well, when I was five years old, I had asked for a Pegasus for Christmas - like a flying horse. I was super into the Hercules mythology at the time. And that wasn't gonna happen. But my dad had this Emmylou Harris Christmas record called Light of the Stable. And I was totally mesmerized by this incredible sound coming out of the stereo. So my parents noticed at that time, well, maybe I was interested in music. And that's how I got my first guitar.

What was it like growing into it? How did you relate to lyrics when you were such a young person?

Mostly I got the encouragement that I needed and my education through my dad. One thing that happened to me early on was that the first Austin City Limits Music Festival happened when I was 12. And my dad took me to that, and I got to see James McMurtry, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Julie Miller, all on the same stage on the same day, and I started writing songs immediately after that.

Well the themes and language of these enormously powerful songwriters are pretty adult stuff. What were you relating to?

It's so mysterious to me. You know, my parents had me when they were quite young, and I've always spent time with people that were older than me. I was a little adult hanging out with my parents’ friends, and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who really raised me, and they never really treated me like a kid. They always treated me as if my ideas mattered. And they didn't shield stuff for me. My grandfather passed away of suicide when I was five years old. And it was a conclusion to a long life of alcoholism. And that wasn't shielded from me. I was told that when I was five. They were absolutely real with me. And I knew when my dad got sober when I was eight years old, that he had struggled with addiction. I remember, before I could get my hands on a Patty Griffin CD, during that time when you could illegally download stuff online, I got a hold of about 45 seconds of that song “Forgiveness.” And I had no idea what that meant at 12 years old, but I was just mesmerized by it. And I didn't even have the whole song. So I have this feeling that my soul was just reaching for this. Destiny is probably too heavy of a word. But it does feel like I've stepped into to this path, you know, and I've been fortunate that a lot of the people that I listened to and that informed my songwriting path that have scooped me up and mentored me and had me as an opener.

You moved to Austin and found mentorship with the late, great Jimmy LaFave. What was that stage like for you?

Well, one of the most important things that happened when I was in Austin is that I got sober. I'd been arrested a couple times for drunk driving and so I got sober, and it collided with this time (at a) coffee shop. It was open 24 hours, and they had music from 10 o'clock in the morning until midnight almost every day, so I would drink enormous amounts of coffee and just listen to all the music that was there. And there's this gospel brunch, where a lot of those folks really scooped me up and said, hey, do you want to come sing harmony on this song? Do you want to sit in and play a song that you've written? So that's when I really started to find my audience. And then I started finding other artists that really helped me kind of build the sound that I wanted. And eventually, that's how I met Jimmy Lafave. He had asked somebody else to sing harmonies on his record, and that person couldn't do it. And so a friend of mine recommended me. Meeting him in the studio was very surreal. And after that, he guided me on the path of Woody Guthrie and told me a lot about some of the Oklahoma scene that I didn't know. Like, kind of trace it back and see if you can find your heroes’ heroes, and then you'll get the same musical foundation that they have.

Tell me about moving to Nashville and how that was tied to your relationship with Mary Gauthier?

I knew that if I'm going to be full time as an artist, for the first time, I probably can't afford to live in the 2018 version of Austin. And I knew as well that based on the location of Nashville, being a touring artist, that it would probably really be a really good place to base out of, which is what a lot of musicians and songwriters have figured out. And I knew that I needed to get a little bit closer to the music business and to understand more about that. And so, I had made that decision in January of 2018. I had no idea that in April of that year, Mary and I would end up becoming a couple. It was so not on my radar. It was kind of this amazing thing. And what's been strange, in a weird way is I've lived here almost five years, but we love to be on the road. And we work together a lot. So I can probably tell you more about Tulsa, OK than I can Nashville because I haven't spent that much time here. But Nashville has been an incredible place to meet some of my heroes. And certainly, I have learned a lot about the business.

The song “How Could You Be Gone” is a co-write with Mary and it’s on both of your albums. It’s pure grief. What’s its story?

In October of 2020, a good friend of ours named Betsy Moran passed away. She got bit by a lone star tick, and her body had this strange reaction and she passed away. And Mary and I did what we know how to do, which was turn to song when we couldn't make sense of what was happening, which for us at that time was grief. We sat down by the fire, and we just spent all day working on that song. And I kind of interviewed Mary as well and shared experiences of how I felt when Jimmy died and how I still think about Jimmy every single day. It's really weird. I still feel that way and I still shake my fist at the sky and go like, how could you be gone? You know? There are moments when things are really difficult in my life and I want to call him and he's not here. So that's how we came up with it. That's one of the most honest expressions of grief.

Was it typical or a little bit out of the ordinary for you and Mary to co-author a song you both wind up putting in your own shows and repertoire?

Well, we've spent so much time on the road. And I more than Mary write in isolation. She has so much more experience as a co-writer than I do. So it's still a new frontier for me. But I mean, there's another song on my record fall that I started writing, and I came to a crossroads with it. And I'm living with one of the best songwriters of all time, why would I not bring it upstairs into the kitchen and go, hey, what do you think about this? We've figured out how to navigate it as a couple. We have a similar philosophy of art. And we have a lot of plans to write together more intentionally.

With Boomerang Town, what felt different about conceptualization and execution from your debut album Red Rescue six years before? For example, it seems like you consciously went for more of a song cycle.

Some of these songs began in 2016, and I wasn't writing towards a goal. I was just writing. And it wasn't until I got to be a part of this really cool event in Lafayette, LA where they mixed up a bunch of songwriters from Louisiana and the UK and Nashville and Texas and Canada. And on the very last day, I got paired with Katrine Noel and Dirk Powell. And we ended up writing a song together that made the record called “The Fair And Dark Haired Lad.” And once I had that song, I felt like, oh, I know where we're going with this record. Also in 2016, I got into a car wreck. So prior to that, I would write in this way where I would sit with my guitar and just play and sing and come up with stuff and then leave it alone, take a break, come back, and if I couldn't remember it, I felt like well, it wasn't good enough to be in the song. So it would just be gone. Well, after the car wreck, I realized, I can't remember anything. I have to write every single thing. And the benefit of that is that I realized that I was missing out on the incredible power of editing. So much was missed, you know, like really like carving David out of the marble. And so I think that really helped me become a much stronger songwriter. Also, I went from playing with an 8-10 piece band every week to being alone on stage with an acoustic guitar as an opening act, which is a whole different skill set. I've had this instinct to not use my voice in certain ways. I think some of that comes from learning how to sing in the church, and it's so not about you in the church. You better not show off in the church. But I realized that's one of the only three tools I have for dynamics when I'm alone on stage with an acoustic guitar. So I think I built in a little more singing out, which is, oddly, way vulnerable for me to do that.

It's so interesting to learn that “Fair And Dark Haired Lad” was an anchoring song. It personifies alcoholism and substance abuse. Why was that the way you went? You describe some of it in your family history. It just seems like a touchstones theme.

Yeah, it did. It also felt like I had a bunch of songs that were a little bit more upbeat, pop, stuck in your head cycle of songs. And then I had a batch of songs that was more the exploration of grief, you know, dealing with what has been going on politically in this country and trying to almost explain myself in a very liberal community that didn't understand what my roots were. I almost felt a responsibility to tell that story. And I wasn't sure that I was capable of going there fully. And then when that song dropped in – “The Fair and Dark Haired Lad,” - I said, okay, we're going with these songs. And the songs that have this upbeat thing where I'm singing my ass off, that's going to come later. We need to tell this story now. Also, I felt this compulsion. Like, I didn't realize when I quote, ‘left the church,’ it wasn't like I said, I'm leaving. I'm out. This is over. I just slowly backed away and dissolved from that life. I don't know if it was through addiction that I just stuffed all that stuff down inside and never pulled it out of the closet. And now through the songs I found myself exploring it. And another difference between Red Rescue and this record is then I felt like I wrote the songs and I got to the other side of some of these experiences. But with Boomerang Town, I'm writing these songs, and I have more questions than I do answers than when I started. And I'm really grateful (for what) these songs have shown me.

Well, just to wrap up what is next for you? Tell me a little bit about your year ahead?

I'm doing some touring on my own. I'll be in pretty much everywhere all over the country. I'm having a CD release party on March 9 at Analog in Nashville. I'll be doing some southwest dates with Tim O'Brien and his wife Jan as well as Mary. Mary and I will be touring all over the place as well together, which is really fun. I open for her and then play guitar and sing harmonies for her as well. So, you know, I love being on the road, especially being from a town where not a lot was happening. I am still so wide eyed and in love with driving around this country and flying to different countries I've never seen and meeting people. I just love it so much.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org