A LaFave Rave

Jimmy LaFave upholds American musical tradition one song at a time.

Electric guitars fade up from a distance and start ringing like the chimes in rock-and-roll heaven. A moment later, a drumbeat kicks in with the force of an Oklahoma tornado while an organ blares its warning siren. Then a voice at once fragile and full of raw muscle, sweet like Southern Comfort and gritty like the rust on a Route 66 gas pump, hollers out, "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend/When I was down, you just stood there grinnin'." It's a familiar sentiment, but it takes almost until the middle of Jimmy LaFave's version of "Positively 4th Street" before the connection becomes clear: Oh, yes, it's the Bob Dylan song.

LaFave has earned part of his singer-songwriter reputation by being the ultimate Dylan interpreter, which in the case of "Positively 4th Street" means turning Dylan's caustic sneer of a song into a pure heartland rocker. But he doesn't stop there. Of the 31 tracks on LaFave's Trail--a two-disc collection of bootleg recordings, live performances, radio shows and studio outtakes released in January on Denver's Bohemia Beat label--twelve are Dylan songs. The CD, La Fave's fifth, apparently answers fans who have been clamoring for a LaFave-does-Dylan album.

"I really love his music," LaFave says. "When people think of Dylan, they think of his words--then they have to do their quick imitation of his voice, you know. But I learned a lot about playing guitar from Dylan, and his sense of melody is amazing. Most people wouldn't put him in with the great vocalists, but I put him in with Sinatra for his vocal phrasing ability."

Though folks who discover LaFave for the first time with Trail may initially think otherwise, LaFave says he's not a Dylan fanatic. Rather, he seems to simply be inhabiting the musical landscape we've all inherited. After all, there's also a Springsteen song and a haunting version of Joe Ely's ever-intriguing "Because the Wind" ("Do you know why the trees bend on the west Texas border?.../They bend because of the wind"). But the folksinger ghost that most seems to have taken up residence in LaFave's blood is his homeboy, Woody Guthrie. LaFave was born in Texas, but spent his formative years in Stillwater, Oklahoma, an hour's drive from Okemah, where Guthrie was born. He moved to Austin in 1986 and won the Austin Chronicle's Best Singer-Songwriter award in both 1995 and 1996--a significant accomplishment in a town full of some of the country's most acclaimed singer-songwriters. He's also won eight Kerrville Folk Festival awards, appeared on the PBS live-music show Austin City Limits and performed at the Woody Guthrie tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Like Guthrie's, LaFave's songs fashion the red dirt of Oklahoma into a universal landscape where wide-open horizons give a young heart plenty of room to dream but too much space to ever truly get away from home. That romantic contradiction is everywhere in LaFave's music. Trail's most obvious example is "Red Dirt Roads at Night," in which LaFave misses growing up in a county where the girls look so fine and there's always a party at the farm--but his memory is one of speeding over "section roads" with a six-pack, trying to lose the "Oklahoma blues." It's a feeling well-known to anyone for whom a car meant teenage freedom, whether the cruising was over dirt roads out in the country or on freeways in some anonymous big city.

"Just growing up in Oklahoma, a lot of people don't realize it has a rich musical tradition: Chet Baker, Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Jimmy Webb," LaFave says. "And if you're into the country-music thing, in Nashville the music industry has probably the highest per capita population of Oklahomans: Garth, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, half of Brooks and Dunn. I think there is a certain sound that comes out of that part of Oklahoma. If you live there long enough, you kind of feel it. The landscape affects your music or something--the red dirt or the horizon, the way the light plays on the plains. A lot of people call it the 'red dirt sound.' It's produced a lot of really good music. I actually miss Oklahoma a lot."

That emotion comes through on Trail's version of Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills." Against a spare rhythmic guitar, LaFave laments the many months that have "came and gone" since he's left his home and yearns for the blackjack trees and red-dirt breeze; his mournful voice cracks when he sings "way down yonder in the Indian nation" on the song's chorus. There's no more powerful evocation of an adult's hard-learned reappreciation for home--the kind that sometimes comes too late.

LaFave says he's always loved the song. "Actually, through a concert we did singing Woody's songs in Austin a few years ago, I've formed a close friendship with Nora Guthrie [Woody's daughter]. Nora just got married a few weeks ago, and I sang at her wedding. That's really cool to me. I felt a real connection to her dad's music, and to get to be part of the Guthrie circle of friends has been a real blessing for me."

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