JP Harris Finds Creative Solace in Old-Time Music With ‘Closer to the Mill (Going to California),’ Featuring Chance McCoy [Exclusive Premiere]
If the world hadn’t stopped, JP Harris might not have a new album to share.
He might not have had enough trust in himself to return to the place where he found solace in the music of old. He might not have rolled the dice of his career in order for the chance to follow his heart. He might not have had the confidence or the time or the patience.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country and cancelled whatever touring plans that Harris had for 2020, the Alabama native did, indeed, find himself with time on his hands and a bit of a calling to do something different in his heart. It led to Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man, a masterpiece of an album and Harris' debut recording of traditional music, under the moniker JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain.
“The genesis of this record came from a mix of happenstance and cosmic alignment,” Harris quietly tells The Boot, mere hours after his second COVID-19 vaccination shot, of his new album. "The plan was to originally make this record in April or May of last year, because the fact is that I had been planning on making an old-time record for years."
With his new project, Harris is finally intertwining the two adjacent, but different, sides of his musical personality -- and making it sound like it was always meant to be that way. One of the shining moments on the record is “Closer to the Mill (Going to California)," an addictive ditty of an old-time song whose music video -- filmed by Jackie Turner at Cook's Old Mill in Greenville, W.V. -- is premiering exclusively on The Boot.
"The lyrical portion of this, I heard on an unlabeled cassette tape years ago, later to learn it was an album titled Cornbread Willie by the Bristol Brothers," Harris explains. "The instrumental arrangement is from a tune recorded by banjo master Reed Martin, titled "Off to California," from the Young Fogies album compiled in the 1980s by the New Lost City Ramblers."
The unscheduled break the pandemic handed to all of us in 2020 led Harris to make a "much-needed trek" to West Virginia, back up to the mountains that ultimately shaped him into the man that he is today, to create what would evolve into Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man.
“I found myself in a completely different, remote reality in the midst of this year of wonders and strange happenings,” says Harris, who, as the story goes, spent years of his life living on a mountainside with no running water and no electricity. “It was almost as though there needed to be a more dire circumstance that would give me an actual need to escape in order to make this record.
"I got to go do something that was so familiar to me and get back to music that touches my soul in a way different than what I am commonly known for," he adds with a laugh. "Let’s just say it was good timing."
Waiting for him on that inner trek was Harris’ dear friend and frequent collaborator Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show. McCoy, too, was waiting out the pandemic on his West Virginia property.
“We were going to record the album in this old sharecropper's, two-room shack that had been built somewhere around 1915, but when I got there, I saw this ditch that [McCoy] had half dug in order to run new electrical service from his house to the studio,” Harris remembers with a chuckle. “There we were, out there in overalls, sweating in the sun, digging out a ditch in order to make a record. It was a pretty good example of Chance and I’s relationship and the way we go about things.”
Once they finally got the once-abandoned shack powered up, the talented pair were off to the races, but with a new sense of calm not always found within the often-constant urgency of the music industry. “I think I came at it with a much more natural approach than I otherwise would have,” remembers Harris, who arrived in West Virginia with a scrap piece of paper filled with notes on 20 tunes he had swirling in his head.
“I had a lot less attachment to the outcome," Harris continues. "Over the past year or so, I have really recalibrated my relationship to music. I think this evaporation of all things we have known in the past year, at least in the music industry, helped me to focus on what felt natural.”
What fell out naturally was what Harris’ soul had been craving.
“There is something sort of mysterious that attracts people to traditional Appalachian music,” Harris reflects. “It has so many influences from so many different places that have forged themselves together over hundreds of years to become this distinctive sound. It speaks to an older, almost genetic impulse for people that is hard to explain, but when you feel it, you know."
Don't You Marry No Railroad Man is due out on June 25, via Free Dirt Records. It's available for pre-order and to pre-save now.