The gritty songwriter and well-regarded woodworker, currently a resident of Nashville, left his home in Alabama and confronted reality when most kids his age were contemplating acne. His country- and old-time-influenced music is also informed by punk and bar rock, both of which he keeps in his musical arsenal.
On his new release, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, Harris demonstrates the kind of experience that comes with getting on with the business of life regardless of society's prescribed timelines and expectations. Along the way, he hasn't lost his sense of humor.
Westword spoke to Harris in advance of his show at the hi-dive on Thursday, November 14.
Westword: Good to talk to you, JP. How's it going?
JP Harris: Hi, yeah, nice to hear from you. I'm just taking in some Kentucky highway right now.
You have an interesting background. I guess you're originally from Montgomery?
Yeah, that's where I started out. And then we split and went out to California looking for work when I was about six or seven years old. We kind of moved all over the place.
I read that you took off on a Greyhound bus and left Alabama after eighth grade.
I did. I split. I had some other stuff I wanted to do in life, and I decided it was time to go. So I kind of just bummed around all over and kept myself busy doing a bunch of random-ass work and stuff.
And you did this all solo? You just took off?
Yeah. It was just an alternate way to go about the whole thing. I had a lot of fun and some near-misses. I learned a lot about not getting killed and being nice to people and counting on the kindness of strangers.
Wow, that makes me think of Into the Wild. Did you ever see that?
Yeah, except I did it with maybe not as many stars in my eyes and with a slightly more realistic approach to life, and luckily, I didn't die in the Alaska wilderness from eating the wrong kind of potato root. But, yeah. I survived some crazy shit, and maybe it was just my dumb luck. I was barely fourteen at the time.
Didn't people try to return you home?
Not really. Everybody thinks that America is all organized and keeps track of everything, but kids can just fall off the map, and if nobody is going out with an APB looking for them, then that's just that. I always seemed older than I was, and when I had run-ins with the law, I just gave them a fake name and said I didn't have an ID, and they were just like, whatever.
Well, you probably got some songwriting material out of it.
And then you had a band called the Tough Choices, with which you made a colorful trip down to Florida.
Yeah, that name was what I called the backing band, which was a bunch of different characters. I kind of dropped the band name a few years ago. People sometimes still bill it as that, or they ask, "Hey, what ever happened to the Tough Choices? And I'm like, 'Which ones?' — because there were like eighty people in that band."
But you got a song out of the Florida experience.
Oh, I sure as shit did. That was many years ago and a different life. So, you know, I made it in one end and out the other without going to jail or the hospital or the morgue, so I consider myself fortunate. That whole story came out of a ten-day tour we did down there that was an ultimate fucking disaster. Canceled gigs and people trying to not pay us, plus all the bad things you do in Florida. You know, destitution and depravity in general. It was a lot of years before I had worked through the trauma of my last trip to Florida.
When did you start writing your own tunes?
I started writing my own songs a little over ten years ago. I've been playing old-time string-band music for years, and I had been playing in punk bands since I was a teenager. But I started writing tunes when I was on tour with this string band that I had for a while. At one point I was like, "Man, I want a louder band! String band music just isn't loud enough. I'm gonna start a honky-tonk band." So I got home and then just kinda started writing tunes haphazardly and kind of fell into the whole thing without making a conscious decision to do it. I was like, "Hey, I wrote some songs." Then I was like, "Hey, let's get some dudes together and play ’em." Then I was like, "Hey, let's go on the road and play a few shows." Then it was, "Let's go on tour," and then I was like, "Hey, I'm on tour half of every year." Then a decade went by, and I was like, "I guess I'm a guy who plays music for a living now."
And you're also a carpenter, right?
Yeah, that's my main bag — doing carpentry work.
Do you build instruments?
Yeah, I do. I was a professional banjo builder for about five years. I had to give that up when I moved to Nashville and got deeper into music. But every couple years, I build a banjo or two. I actually built one for my buddy Nathaniel Rateliff a few years back. I still like to make one or two here and there. I do it when I want a little retreat from life.
So you built Nathaniel Rateliff a banjo?
Yeah, I didn't know he even played banjo. But I had put something out on the Internet that said something like, "Hey, world, I'm making some banjos for sale," and he hit me up. I got a text from him right away. So he's got one of my banjos tucked in his living room somewhere.
When you make them, do you include a name on them?
I always just stamp "JP Harris" on the back of ’em. They're pretty distinct claw-hammer open-back banjos. I used to build a lot of fretless ones, which is a style that I play, but I made him a fretted proper one.
And one of the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show helped you produce your new release?
Yeah, I've been friends with those guys for years, but I was doing some work in the bass player's studio, and we were working there one day, and [Morgan Jahnig] asked me what I was up to. I told him I was getting ready to record an album, and he offered to produce it. So I said, "Sure, you're a great player and you're my friend, and we're standing right here, so let's make a record."
So he helped you out on this new record, Dogs Bark at Nothing?
Yeah, it's the first record that I haven't produced myself. So he produced and mixed it. It was a blast to work with someone who was a good buddy.
I like the title. Was that your own idea?
Well, actually my buddy Timmy Finlan, who used to play bass in my band and who is also a carpenter and an old friend of mine, used to be out on the road with me a lot. One day we were driving through some small town, and we came to a stop, and there was a dog in someone's yard just standing there barking into the ether at nothing in particular. Timmy had been drinking beers in the back of the van, and he kinda comes up from the back — he gets real funny when he gets drunk — and he goes, "You know man, sometimes dogs just bark at nothing." And I said, "Tim, that's a killer line. Mind if I make a song out of it?" And he said, "Knock yourself out. I don't give a shit." So technically, I guess it's a co-write.
Cool. I also like your song "When I Quit Drinking."
Right on. Thanks, man. That was a fun one. It came out real good. It sort of stood out to the top as the hit single. About a month ago, it was on a soundtrack for a Netflix series, [The Ranch], with Sam Elliott in it, and I guess it was a big hit, because it went from having 40,000 streams on Spotify to about 150,000 in about two weeks. People seem to like the song, which is cool.
Is the song autobiographical?
Yeah, I took about three or four years off from drinking. I decided to kind of push "reset" on my life for a bit. The music business is a real hard one. It doesn't always make sense, and it isn't always fair. It's just fucking hard, and you can't fathom how hard it is until you go out and do it. So people start to self-medicate, and shit can go sideways sometimes. I actually started writing that song before I had quit drinking for a spell, and then I put it down. About two years into being on the wagon, I had a bolt of lightning, and I realized that I knew how the rest of the song went. So I finished it up. It's a real personal song, but that one is really close to home.
Are you a fan of old-school country, or is there a kind of country music that influenced you?
I like everything from old-time music and early country, like Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Appalachian music, up until stuff that I grew up with in the ’90s, like Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt. I'm not too specific to one era; I kind of like it all. I used to be much more passionate about my distaste for modern country music, but eventually I hit a point where I got sick of bitching about it, and then I figured that it obviously appeals to some people, because those dudes are making millions. I still think the bulk of it is trash, but there's a shift where I think more folks are getting over all the radio country music and there's a new wave of better country coming out. It's nice to see real country acts out there touring. It's encouraging.
JP Harris, Bison Bone and White Rose Motor Oil play at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at the hi-dive, 7 South Broadway. Tickets are $12 to $15 and available at hi-dive.com.
Hear JP Harris, Bison Bone, White Rose Motor Oil and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.