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."
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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."
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."
That's obvious on Trail, which includes several tracks recorded in Europe. The audience at 1994's Frutigen Festival in Switzerland applauds so enthusiastically after "Positively 4th Street" that the spent LaFave responds with a humble "Oh, mercy." And LaFave's "The Perfect Combination" (about a girl who is "a little bit sugar, a little bit spice") is so thoroughly raucous, so full of Chuck Berry guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis piano, that the crowd gathered one night at the Renfe Club in Ferrara, Italy, must have thought they were in Cleveland.
But the majority of the performances on the album come from closer to LaFave's cherished home. There's an anguished version of Jimmy Cox's blues classic "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," wherein LaFave's gravelly voice--a perfect companion for the song's "champagne, cocaine and wine"--echoes off the walls of Nick's Club in Stillwater sometime back in 1984. Many of the cuts, including most of the album's Dylan tunes, were recorded at Austin's Cactus Cafe. And while it's intriguing to hear "Going Home," LaFave's reassuring love song to a woman who sleeps while he drives across a long prairie highway, recorded off of an Amsterdam radio show, some of the compilation's most moving moments are from various hometown recording sessions and radio broadcasts. "How It Must Remain," an aching, keyboard-laced admonition to a woman he loves but can't change himself for, was recorded in 1992 at what one affectionate Austin writer called LaFave's "Austin launching pad, the long-defunct Chicago House." In a rough 1985 recording of his complicated "Loved You Like Rainbows," as LaFave tries to express his feelings to a woman who "never could understand" how his love was like bright colors, his bandmates' lonely fiddle and mandolin reverberate along with a low-level hiss in a Stillwater studio. After "Burden to Bear," his meditation on loss and regret, in which he's helped out by a plaintive harmonica and bass line by Randy Glines, host Abby Goldstein introduces LaFave with a warm familiarity and calls Glines "Mr. Consistency." And in a live radio set recorded on Austin's KUT last year, LaFave is joined by Bohemia Beat labelmates Fracasso and Moore and a rousing chorus of other singers for a semi-ad-libbed, rollicking rendition of the traditional gospel "Hold On." At one point LaFave laughs that he can't read the lyrics, and later he has to yell out that they're coming up on the chorus--but the song more than accomplishes its inspirational mission. In all of these settings, LaFave is clearly among friends--musicians radio hosts, writers, audiences--and it's a testament to the communal nature of music-making.
The project was one Shumate had wanted to do for a while. "Back in the early days, I used to carry my portable DAT recorder around, and with the cooperation of the sound man, I would hook up to the board and see what I could get," he says. "Some of it was wonderful, and other people gave me tapes, and Jimmy had tapes he had made. I'd play these for people, and everybody agreed that it's so spontaneous it just ought to be put out. We ended up putting together eight CDs' worth of potential-candidate songs and sent them off to Jimmy and a couple of other people, and everybody who heard it was blown away. Jimmy got really excited when he heard the wealth of stuff, and he pulled out the kind of stuff that's somewhere in the basement, which was wonderful, and added another half-dozen real gems on the record. Eventually we paired it down to 31 cuts and came out with it. It's been received every bit as well as any of the studio records we've done, despite its obvious bootleggy quality. That adds to its charm."
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"We went through a lot of tapes to put those songs on there," LaFave says. "We listened to hundreds of songs, and by the end, there were about fifty or sixty we liked a lot." For LaFave, the songs chronicle the privilege of living a life playing music. "They bring back the memory of where I was," he says. "That first song ['Positively 4th Street'] was our first trip to Switzerland, so it's a good memory, because I remember the crowd was really into it. That particular festival had the Subdudes and a lot of bands from all around the U.S.A., and it was a real fun concert.
"Most of the songs are like that--even some of the ones from the radio stations," he says. "They bring back good memories of places you've traveled with your music."
Woody Guthrie would know the feeling.
Jimmy LaFave. 8 p.m. Friday, June 18, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Avenue, $13, $11 for Swallow Hill members, 303-777-1003.