A LaFave Rave

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

But that's also a reciprocal gift, since there's been a concerted effort to renew interest in Guthrie's music, particularly with last year's Mermaid Avenue, a project initiated by Nora Guthrie in which Billy Bragg and Wilco composed music for lyrics Guthrie had written before he died in 1967. In the CD's liner notes, Bragg writes that "the result is not a tribute album but a collaboration between Woody Guthrie and a new generation of songwriters who until now had only glimpsed him fleetingly, over the shoulder of Bob Dylan or somewhere in the distance of a Bruce Springsteen song."

So the connections are obvious. But LaFave's 1992 performance of Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills," taken from a KGSR radio program in Austin, is significant because it ties together even more threads. At the beginning of the track, LaFave tells a studio bystander that she is "welcome to sing along here"--and when she does, the youthful Lucinda Williams is almost unrecognizable on the final chorus's back-up vocals. Williams recorded her recent stunner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, in Nashville, but her presence as another of Austin's most notable singer-songwriters on a recording made long before she earned her current recognition emphasizes just how full of sustenance those Texas fields can be.

"I think what I like about Austin is, it's such a great music city that musicians come here from all over the country--but definitely not your Nashville house-type songwriters," LaFave says. He was originally drawn to Austin after hearing songs by the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Lubbock's Butch Hancock. "These days, there's Shawn Colvin, Tish Hinojosa--there's a diverse songwriting community," he adds. "I definitely learned a lot about music once I moved here."

That move was fortuitous for others, as well. In fact, Bohemia Beat founder Mark Shumate admits that LaFave is basically responsible for the label's existence. Shumate had a lake house in Austin and was spending quite a bit of time there. "I'd seen his name hosting some Dylan open mikes and stuff like that and had made a mental note to go see him," Shumate recalls. "He just blew me away. I loved his voice, I loved the songs he was writing and the Dylan stuff he was doing. He's one of those guys--you know the old cliche, that he could sing the phone book..."

At the time, LaFave was constrained by his contract with Tomato Records--an arrangement that had just seen the completion of a record produced by Bob Johnston, who had produced seven Dylan albums as well as projects by Paul Simon and other luminaries "all the way back to Marty Robbins's El Paso," Shumate says. The company went under but held LaFave to his contract in the event of a miraculous resurrection. "There were three or four years where I couldn't release any product, and that was kind of at the height of my popularity here in Austin," says LaFave.

"I suggested he should put out a live demo and shop it to record companies," Shumate says. "I didn't know anything about the record business. I lent him the money and said we could sell it in town and sell it through catalogues, and he could keep the profit. He never really did too much about sending it out to other labels, but it became the number-two seller at [Austin's] Waterloo Records, which is one of best record stores in the country and a barometer in Austin."

That first CD was Austin Skyline, and through its success, Bohemia Beat secured distribution for the album through Rounder Records. "That led me to take one little step further into the record business and do a studio album, which we called Highway Trance," says Shumate. "Then we ended up getting involved with Abra Moore, Michael Fracasso and Wyckham Porteous in Canada, and we did three more records with Jimmy." Shumate says he doesn't consider himself to have "both feet into the record business," but his tendency to take on projects he's fond of has produced considerable results, particularly when Moore signed with Arista Records and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1997.

"I started out trying to lend a hand and finance a recording project and ended up being a small record label--small but quality," Shumate says, laughing.

That works just fine for LaFave. "I've talked to major labels, had them fly me to New York and L.A. and court me, but the deals never really made sense to me in the end," LaFave says. He cites comments made by his old colleague Williams, who in her keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest convention reminded the assembled musicians, writers and other industry types of the importance of never selling one's soul--and Austin is the perfect place to live by that philosophy.

"It's so cool, because it's the live-music capital of the country," LaFave says, "but there aren't so many publishing houses or record labels that they can mess up the music. People can do what they want. And it's close enough to Mexican tejano, there's the Gulf Coast zydeco influence. There are a lot of musical styles here, but they're very true to their original roots. Rockabilly stays true to the rockabilly tradition--same with the folk here. A lot of people from Europe come here to listen to music, and Austin bands are successful in Europe, because Europeans are tuned into the purity of the music."

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