Hello World, I give you the darned fine listenable JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain, the nom de guerre of no-bullshit old-school old-time music aficionado, JP Harris. Of a strong voice under cool resolve, he’s spent a good amount of time reinventing the banjo with the most force since Bela Fleck. JP plays fretless banjo; he plays another banjo with lower thicker strings; he plays in surprise tunings, and he even has a banjo with the strings tuned down whole steps to the tonal neighborhood of what grunge would be for a banjo. Hell, he even builds the damn things himself to achieve whatever sound he’s hearing in his head. On first listen it sounds like he’s simply playing the guitar a lot of the time, but there’s nary an acoustic guitar on the album, Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man (out today, July 25, via Free Dirt Records). He don’t need no stinkin’ guitars.
That’s JP singing, Chance McCoy — formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show — on fiddle and background vocals, and whatever banjo JP was playing at the moment. Between his voice and the two players, one never gets bored — the two of them fill up the sonic canvas with well thought out musical telepathy and agreeably economical riffs. JP’s voice completes the picture of a well-inked 21st-century man with both feet firmly planted in a musical tradition dating to the 18th century.
It’s a covers album if you want to get technical about it, but to hell with that because you’ve never heard these tunes in your life. They’ll all be delightfully new to you — unless of course, you’re a fan of the B-sides of’ 100-year-old 78s. He’s taken the melodies of tunes older and more venerable than you would know and turned out a marvelous and seamless vibe. On first listen, I thought JP had written all the songs and nothing stuck out that was weird or out of character; Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is a collection of timeless songs written generations upon generations ago. Traditionally there is a banjo in the vernacular of this old-time Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky music, but this was perhaps the first time an African-derived instrument had ever entered the vocabulary of the white man.
“The banjo is not a European instrument,” JP Harris points out, “the banjo traces right back to Africa, and so you match that with a violin — THAT’S where white and black came across one another and played together.” A long time back from Elvis and even before Robert Johnson, cultures blended. A time before plantation owners realized they needed to pit poor white folks against Black slaves to keep them from banding together and overthrowing said plantation owners.
JP headed for McCoy’s homestead in the mountains of West Virginia to record the McCoy-produced album.
It’s all first takes reflecting their energy and capabilities. So, the record drops today, July 25. And hey, my job was just to let you know about it. Now it’s your turn. And if I unearth any dirt on the proceedings of a festive nature, I will hire a skywriter. Definitely take a listen to this record for a serious education on what roots music can be when we really do look past Hank Sr. or even Roy Acuff and bring it back to the 21st Century in a way that’s really cool and necessary to preserve.
JP Harris’ Dreadfull Wind & Rain
Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man
Available now on Free Dirt Records