There are professions as old as mankind that stand the test of time due to our dependence on them. Musicians make that list and Jaimee Harris knew this was the life for her when she was a little girl in Waco. Her father would fill her ears with music and take her on the road, often playing show in Houston with his cover band and letting young Harris take the stage during intermission, if the bar didn’t kick her out first for being underage.
Harris, who will appear at Mucky Duck on May 30, grew up in the Clear Channel dominated airwaves of Waco and made it her mission to seek out quality artists who focused on songwriting as a craft. She would spend countless nights at home studying the songs of others in her bedroom and teaching herself how to write. When a friend told her about the bustling music scene in Austin, Harris packed it up and moved on down.
“My heroes and people that I look up to, they are in Austin. I literally got convinced to move to Austin because a guy pointed at Congress and said ‘There’s a club down there where James McMurtry plays twice a week for less than ten dollars.’ So many of the artists that I gravitated towards when I was learning to write songs were all there.” says Harris.
Her passion for the craft of songwriting was instantly recognizable to the artists she sought out and she was quickly embraced by the core of Austin’s singer songwriter community. People who she had admired from afar back in Waco were now taking her under their wing, including the late, great Jimmy LaFave.
“I was really attached to his music when I was learning how to write my own songs and learning how to play guitar so the opportunity to get to work with him years later was such a joy for me and then to have a friendship with him and to have him as a mentor, obviously was such an unbelievable dream.”
Two years ago, Harris kicked off LaFave’s final concert in Austin; a gut wrenching, soul shaking farewell concert that he organized himself to say goodbye to the city that had embraced him so warmly. LaFave passed away just days after sharing nothing but love on stage that night.
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“There’s only one of him. I remember after Jimmy left the stage I was standing there with Ray Bonneville, we stood together and we looked at this spot where Jimmy had been. It was like when you see a shooting star in the sky and you keep looking at that spot expecting that to happen again, but you know that it won't.”
Harris adds, “Jimmy was such a great connector of people. He’s how I got connected eventually to Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson and eventually Mary Gauthier. There are still people that I meet as I tour across the country that I’m connected to from Jimmy.”
LaFave guided Harris toward living artists but also pushed Harris to study artists of the past and gave her lessons in all things Woody Guthrie. “He was the one who sparked my interest and it grew into a minor obsession.” Harris admits with a chuckle.
This year will be her fifth year performing at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. A unique experience to say the least; the small town only has one hotel and it gets packed to rim with musicians who come to honor the patron saint of songwriting, Woody Guthrie.
LaFave also lent his vocals to the title track of his friends debut album, Red Rescue. “Jimmy came in to sing on it and at the time we knew that he probably wasn’t going to be alive by the time was released.” says Harris. “He was such a part of my musical fabric that it still blows my mind that it happened, that he sang on my record.”
“Red Rescue” tells the unfortunate and common tale of someone wanting to save another person from their situation without considering that sometimes people don’t want to be rescued or don’t even realize they need help. The song is based on a true story told to Harris by a friend discussing his ex wife.
“That song was about somebody else but this is a central theme of the record; you can’t be saved from your own darkness by somebody else, you have to put in the work. Sometimes that does mean asking for help, but that part has to be voluntary.” Harris knows a thing or two about dark times and described how music has helped her to progress in life, “It has given me an opportunity to be a part in a world where I might not be able to function so well without it.”
In her first years in Austin she battled with alcohol and substance abuse and ended up in jail twice. After her second stint she knew it was her responsibility to get her act together. Harris got the usual runaround from state departments and insurance companies on her quest for support towards sobriety. Harris learned firsthand just how flawed the system is. One state employee even advised her to drink again so that she would be covered for a recovery program. “I think a lot of people who don’t have personal experience with the system, don’t realize how many things are working against you.”
Her experiences have inspired Harris to reach out to marginalized communities who need more help then the state is willing or able to provide. “My heart is really with prisons, women in prison specifically, and addicts in prison. I think the real crime is locking away addicts, not helping them and creating this inter-generational incarceration.”
Along with her touring partner, Mary Gauthier, the two women have performed at and worked with centers for women in Texas and Oklahoma. The two met at a songwriting workshop led by Gauthier, Gilkyson and Peters. Gauthier reached out to Harris and offered to be part of her support network if she needed it.
“I started realizing how amazing and powerful it is to have women that are in the business around you because you are able to talk about the issues that face you, what we are dealing with and how to move it collectively forward.” says Harris of her budding friendships with so many women in the music business.
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The two will take the stage at Mucky Duck with Harris opening solo and then joining Gauthier on stage. They will be joined by Italian violinist, Michele Gazich. Gauthier is promoting her most recent, Grammy-nominated album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, a powerful album inspired by and co-written with veterans.
Both women are a perfect fit to share a bill, carrying the torch for songwriters of the past simply trying to make sense of the world and help others. “The state of the world is in such chaos and when people are in pain great songs are written and those great songs tap into the universal experience of the people who are suffering. It brings us together and helps to create unity at a time when things could so horribly go off the rails. It gives us hope I think.”
Jaimee Harris will perform with Mary Gauthier Thursday May 30 at McGonigels Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, early shows at 7 p.m. and at 9:30 p.m. $30