The application guidelines for performing in the Lowell Folk Festival state right up front that the festival’s programming committee considers only ethnic and traditional performers. It defines “traditional” as “those art forms that are learned as part of the cultural life of a group of people whose members share a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or culturally united geographic region. Folk and traditional arts are shaped by the aesthetics and values of a shared culture . . ..”
LOWELL FOLK FESTIVAL
J.P. Harris, who will be playing several sets at the festival over the weekend with his band, the Tough Choices, certainly considers the music he plays — 1960s-vintage electric country music — as falling within that definition.
“As much as I feel that country music is very much a traditional American folk music, a lot of people are behind the curve on that,” Harris asserts, speaking by phone while relaxing over a beverage on a Saturday afternoon. “So I was excited to find that this is one of the few festivals that believes that that music from the ’60s and ’70s still counts as folk music, still counts as part of the cultural heritage of America.”
That period, Harris believes, saw the forging of an incredible new form of music, and of an entire culture of country music as well. During the years when older country styles were ascendant, “people were living in the country and tuning into WSM or whatever their little AM station was,” he points out. Then, with the mass migrations into cities during the late 1950s and into the 1960s, “there was this whole new joining of rural and urban culture.” That, he says, is what the new music’s sound really defined. “Rural America poured itself into the urban centers, and that music became a signifier of that whole change.”
The Alabama native points to certain titans of that era as particularly influential for him: Johnny Paycheck (primarily his pre-outlaw material), and Buck Owens (“the father of what I consider to be modern country music”). He also speaks in reverential terms of an artist who has for some reason fallen into undeserved obscurity, Del Reeves: “He was one of the greatest country singers, and definitely one of the greatest country songwriters that ever lived.”
Harris sees what he’s doing as retro in a sense, but not simply so. “It’s retro,” he says, “but at the same time, I’m not trying to re-create an image. I just want to give people something new with an old feel. I don’t ever want it to be like you go to a show and pretend that it’s 1965 again. No; this is a sound that won’t die. That’s my approach to it. This sound is real, and it’s current now. It’s not a retro thing, it just is. It’s country music.”
“It’s exciting to be part of a living history of music,” is how he sums it up.
It’s a measure of how well Harris is doing with the style that, even though he’s a relative newcomer in terms of wider recognition and recorded output (with a single album, the recently released “I’ll Keep Calling,” to his credit), the festival’s programmers sought him out. He’s not even sure how they heard about him, but somehow they got hold of his music and he received an e-mail inviting him to perform, much to his surprise.
“I’d never even thought about trying to submit for something like that because they had such huge names playing. . . . My mind is still kind of blown that I’m getting a nod like I am for this festival. It’s very exciting, and flattering too.”
And his expectations for the weekend? “We’re a dance band, so I want to see people dancing. And I’m going there to have a really good time. I’m going to wear sunglasses all day, drink before noon, and make people dance.”