JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain: Don’t You Marry a Railroad Man! New album out on Free Dirt Records from Nashville underground country singer JP Harris’ duo project with Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show). It’s old school fiddle and banjo music with Gothic overtones made in the mountains of Appalachia.
Around Nashville, JP Harris is either known as one of the best carpenters, building recording studios or meticulously restoring historic homes, or one of the best no-bullshit old-school country singers. But anywhere else he’s known as Squash (a childhood family nickname that never wore off), a quasi-mythical bearded figure known for rolling through underground picking circles, fiddler competitions, and stringband contests with his powerful banjo playing on handmade instruments. With Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man, his debut recording of traditional music under the moniker JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain, his alter ego is coming out of the shadows to celebrate this arcane and truly American musical repertoire.
Together with long time friend and ace fiddler Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), the duo feature ten tracks spanning the breadth of American old-time repertoire. Harris wades between ancient ballads that traveled from the British Isles to Appalachia to droning banjo ditties played on one of Harris’ coveted homemade banjos. Harris also works as a serious carpenter in Nashville which adds a unique authenticity to his version of the classic ballad “House Carpenter.” On this sparse and arresting recording, Harris isn’t mining his roots as a marketing pitch, he has the chops to back it up.
To make the album, JP headed for Chance’s homestead in the mountains of West Virginia. Chance produced the album, but “we’re old-time dudes,” JP confesses, “we weren’t worried about the takes. We were wearing cut-off short shorts and no shoes in an old sharecropper’s shack and going to the creek to drink beer instead of recording about half the time.” Still, the album sounds impeccable, the banjo ringing with Gothic tones and JP’s voice a-quaver with emotion at the hands of these ancient ballads. To get the studio finished, the two had to dig a 50 foot electrical trench by hand through solid shale, had to repair the roof in huge winds, thawed the ice off the slab with blow torches, in short they fought for this album. Fought to make it together and fought to carve out time to show respect to the old music that’s inspired both of them for the whole of their careers.
JP wasn’t raised surrounded by folk or country or stringband music; he found his music community in the punk underground. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, but coming of age as a displaced Southerner in Las Vegas, he left home at the very young age of fourteen and hit the open road, trading the security of home for a life of adventure. Though in many ways at odds with his Alabama roots, his travels into rural parts of the country left him desiring a better understanding of what he’d left behind, to search for the whole story of American music and culture. He would later learn, after a trip home to Alabama with his first handmade banjo, that there were strong old-time music roots on both sides of his family: his paternal great-grandfather Warren Harris had moonlighted as a stringband trio guitarist on Ohio radio stations, and his maternal great-great-grandfather Elihue Waters was a championship fiddler in Tallapoosa County, AL.
As JP explains, “Often the reason kids got into punk rock is because the family or upbringing they had were explicitly the opposite of who they wanted to be, but, as many of us aged, we wanted to find a way to connect and relate to these people. For Southerners, family is ingrained in us as a survival instinct; you rely on your family to stay alive.” Looking for community and family in the music, JP found that the stringband world was open to him in ways that much of the rest of America wasn’t. He embraced the scene for its ability to bring people together across otherwise uncrossable social lines. “Old-time music always seemed to be the common ground that gave people space to be present and promoted a lot of people mostly getting along, except for a few unfortunate encounters with bad apples,” he says. “It’s such a small world that you didn’t have the luxury of not participating with people different than you.”
Up in the mountains with Chance, JP found himself murkily recalling his favorite Appalachian songs and tunes, melodies he’d danced to or drank to or partied to over the years, but also melodies that seemed out of touch with time. He played detuned banjos built by his own hand, and slowed the music down from its square dance roots to draw out the stories in the songs. These are songs of murder, of devils come to tempt, of adoration and love lost, some dating as far back as the 17th century, and learned either through oral tradition or tattered antique songbooks. Despite their age, some of these songs clearly touch on JP’s life, like his wistful interpretation of “The Little Carpenter” or “Wild Bill Jones,” while others reach back to pagan themes (“Old Bangum,” “Barbry Ellen”), scratching an itch for the unknown that fueled many a late night train ride or questionable tattooing decision on JP’s part.
For JP though, old-time Appalachian music has always been much more than an exercise in creative antiquity. “Old-time was and is an experience that’s spiritual for me beyond explanation,” he says. “Playing music together, becoming physically hypnotized by a sound and a rhythm… you realize that there’s a deeper meaning to the human condition.” You can feel the harmony in the music that JP and Chance make, both of them passing in and out of conscious thought as they play and sing together, propelled by the waves of motion buried deep in the old songs.
PS: If you’re not familiar with JP Harris’ underground country music, check out his set at KEXP for a taste!
JP also went viral recently for his anti-Qanon song, “Take off your Tinfoil Hat”:
Photo Credits: (1ff) JP Harris (3) Chance McCoy, (unknown/website).